Bibles and the Board -- A SKIRMISH BREWING
By Micahel Granberry
VISTA, Calif. -- At Allen's Alley Cafe, the noontime conversation these days often turns to a hot topic: The city's school board, whose new members make up what many call a right-wing, Bible-beating majority bent on change.
Skeptical parents envision a new era in which sex education classes serve as pulpits for preaching against abortion, and science courses teach that God created Earth in seven days.
They fear that the new board will censor books, cancel programs for immigrant children, try to impose school prayer, oppose racial integration and abolish school-breakfast, self-esteen and drug-abuse programs, which conservatives view as government's encroachment on "family values."
In this inland community of 76,000 in north San Diego County, where the biggest civic boast is having "the best weather in America," the controversy is nastier than anything that may have ever happened here.
Susie Lange, spokeswoman for the state Department on Education, said California officials are "keeping a close eye" on events in Vista, where a right-wing coalition campaigned aggressively last fall and seized a school board majority -- three of five seats.
Other school districts in California have seen conservatives running strong campaigns in recent years, but not going so far as to actually take control of a school board. "In that respect," Lange said, "Vista is unique. They actually achieved the majority."
After a campaign aimed at getting out the vote at the city's churches, Joyce Lee and John Tyndall [an ICR member -bv] easily ousted moderate incumbents Lance Vollmer and Marcia Moore, joining fellow fundamentalist Deidre Holliday to form the majority whose newfound power is alarming to many.
The first skirmish is expected tonight, when the board will consider two agenda items, both so controversial that the meeting has been moved from the offices of the Vigsta Unified School District to one of the city's larger auditoriums.
At the request of a marine biologist concerned about the new members' ideology, the board will air its views on creationism -- but only as a discussion item. [I wonder if this marine biologist is Steve Linke, a past participant in t.o who works at Scripps in San Diego. -bv.] It plans to vote, however, on the hiring of four new attorneys, which has plenty of people worried and a few enraged.
Poppy Dennis, head of The Community Coalition Network, a liberal group formed to counter the growing fundamentalist education movement, said the lawyers -- all of whom champion such conservative causes as the anti-abortion effort led by Operation Rescue -- are being sought for a reason.
"Why would you put on the district payroll attorneys whose role has been to sue schools on behalf of various right-wing causes?" she asked.
She predicted that the agenda of the new members will result in lawsuits, whether they are in response to the reinstitution of school prayer, the dismantling of bilingual and sex-education programs or the teaching of creationism. "And when such suits result," Dennis said, "the new members will want to make sure they have the right lawyers arguing for them."
The conservatives, for their part, said they are not trying to push creationism in the classroom but indicate they will seek sweeping changes on other fronts.
To many in the community, though, such change is long overdue.
"Lately, we've been indoctrinating our kids more than teaching them," said satellite television dealer Morris Saracino. "The reason Johnny can't read is that we're so concerned with doing things the politically correct way that we've forgotten to teach him how to read and write, and to think for himself."
"In my opinion, the older members on the board are overreacting to the newer members," retired businessman Donald Graham, 68, said over chicken-fried steak and cream gravy at Allen's Alley Cafe. "The new members haven't caused any trouble -- yet."
The Vista Teachers Assn. bitterly opposed the election of the new members. Tom Conry, its president, cites litigation as a chief concern, in an economy and a school district where money is hard to come by.
That has the state worred as well.
"If nothing else, the hiring of those attorneys should bother that community greatly," said Lange, the education official. "When citizens see the board hiring four attorneys, and kids are going without books and roofs are leaking, somebody has questions to answer."
New member Lee, who often carries her Bible with her and quotes from it freely, accuses the teachers association and some parents of "whipping up hysteria."
Lee said teachers and parents are "overreacting," and that she and her colleagues have no intention of ordering the teaching of creationism.
"They should all feel pretty secure with the precedent set in at least three court cases, saying you can't put creationism in a science classroom on equal footing with evolution," said board President Holliday, a member of the Christian majority. "Do I support this idea? I abide by the law and court decisions."
Asked about sex education and immigration issues, however, Holliday declined to comment. Lee has publicly stated that she prefers a return to prayer in the schools and an end to the breakfast program for underprivileged students.
As for teaching children of illegal immigrants, Lee recently told a Vista newspaper: "If you're going to cut the school budget, cut those who aren't American."
Regardless of the board's intentions, the debate has stirred furor and plenty of fear.
"All we hear about is that they want to make us pray in school and that they want to ban books," said Louie Archuleta, 17, a senior at Rancho Buena Vista High School.
"They've already started banning books," said Mat Price, a 15-year old sophomore at the same school, claiming that Maya Angelou's autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and the Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" have been removed from school shelves because of sexually explicit scenes.
School officials deny the assertion, but parents such as Poppy Dennis fear a kind of "self-censorship" will result as teachers adjust to the new political climate.
Max Friedlander, owner of the Book Deli, a popular bookstore, has heard of the threat to ban books and calls it stupid, a word he also applies to the ongoing debate. He blames fear and mounting problems of gangs and drugs in a community "that's growing too fast" for igniting support for the so-called religious majority.
"Regardless of where you sit politically," he said, "people around here are just scared, and that's at the root of the problem."
At the cafe, retiree Graham blames the school battle on "a radical transformation. This little, rural, farming village suddenly feels overpopulated -- and scared. A lot of people don't understand why Vista, of all places, has such big, urban problems."
"As a result, you have a battle over the school system, and it won't end soon."