Riddle: Are OUSD Trustees Ortega and Lebsack Conflicted on Upcoming Charter School Vote?

“How do I look?” is a classic question often asked by teens but not asked enough by school board members before casting important votes that will have a lasting impact on the students and schools entrusted to their care.

Nevertheless that’s the question Orange Unified School District Board of Education trustees John Ortega and Brenda Lebsack should ask themselves before December 19th. That’s the day they’ll decide whether to cast a vote to allow a corporate group, the Orange County Classical Academy, to open a charter school in the district.                                                                                      

Before We Get to the Voting Question, Here’s a Bit of Background  —

Classical Academy’s lead petitioner is Mark Bucher.  Among other things, Bucher is a Tustin attorney and the CEO of the California Policy Center. He’s well known throughout our county’s school districts for his founding and zealous work with the now-defunct Education Alliance, as well as his continuing and very public anti-teacher association and pro-charter school efforts.

In Orange itself, Bucher is rather unfondly remembered by many public school advocates for his enthusiastic support of former OUSD trustees Martin Jacobson, Maureen Aschoff and Linda Davis.  After great upheaval and expense to the district, all three were recalled from office by the electorate in 2001.

Now Bucher’s back.  He’s come to ask the OUSD board to “trust me;” trust me to open and operate a taxpayer-funded charter school within the district.  He’ll get his answer at their December meeting.

Like all others, OUSD’s board has a legal and fiduciary duty to assure access, security and the delivery of a solid education to every school-age child living within the district.  It has an equally serious legal obligation to authorize a charter to requesting petitioners unless the petitioner fails to meet the state’s requirements.

Many OUSD parents and teachers worry that opening Classical Academy will drain already too-scarce resources away from educating local kids while bringing nothing of added benefit to the district. Others seriously question whether Bucher can successfully implement the program he’s assured prospective parents Classical Academy will deliver.  In particular, they’re skeptical he can make good on his widely disseminated suggestion that Academy students may get “priority admission and scholarships” to Chapman University.  While Bucher has now removed that enticing language from his current petition, that apparently false inducement continues to be circulated via the Internet.

Thus, the question of whether the Academy meets the state’s requirements is fraught with doubt that is only deepened by apprehensions over how Ortega and Lebsack will conduct themselves during the December vote.

Ortega and Lebsack Must Ask Themselves: How Will I Look if I Vote for this Charter?

Ortega and Lebsack received substantial campaign donations from the California Charter Schools Association through one of its advocacy political action committees (Orange County Advocates for Greater Public Schools, PAC # 1384538) when they were elected to the OUSD board in 2016.

‘Substantial’ is not used lightly.  According to their own campaign records, 96% of Ortega’s total campaign coffers came from that one source; 97% of Lebsack’s came from that same donor.

Also astonishing is that Ortega’s other 4% of campaign funds came not from Orange parents but from just one Newport Beach architect.  Lebsack’s 3% of non-charter PAC money totaled only $615; of that, less than $400 was attributable to OUSD area residents.

More troubling is what they may need to do to run again in 2020 elections.  Since Ortega and Lebsack received virtually all their prior campaign dollars from a single charter school PAC, it seems reasonable to worry they’ll be looking for charter support for their 2020 campaigns.  And too, shouldn’t we be concerned whether the charter PAC will ask: “What have you done for me lately?”

Some folks might ask: Is that even legal? Isn’t that a conflict to get so much from one donor?

Is Receiving 97% of Your Campaign Funds from a Single Donor a Conflict of Interest?  No.  But the Question is:  How Does it Appear?

A candidate’s receipt of large campaign contributions, even from a single donor, doesn’t create a legal conflict of interest.  Generally, under our electoral process, a conflict of interest is created only when an office holder receives a personal benefit by way of a gift of more than minimal value.  The receipt of funds to finance a run for office is not a personal gift because the money must be spent on the campaign and all expenditures must be accounted for to the state.

But there’s something else of significance to add to the mix here. Governments, from national to local, only work when voters and residents believe – and have good reason to believe – that the officials they have elected act fairly and impartially.  We, the public, have to have a level of confidence that our representatives are not persuaded in their considerations and voting by anything other than the relevant facts being applied to the legal requirements they are bound to follow.

So, the question by elected official before casting every vote is this:  Does this vote by me, on my constituents’ behalf, look to them – across the board – to be fair? To be proper?  “The avoidance of an impropriety” or even “the avoidance of the appearance of an impropriety” is an ethical standard applicable to all elected officers. It’s not a law. Yet the avoidance of the appearance of impropriety is absolutely necessary to assure public confidence in governance.  This is especially true regarding our public schools where the only focus of our elected members should be on what’s best for the kids we entrust to their care.  Bottom line then: Even if an elected school board member knows in her/his heart they are acting fairly or properly, the question the official must always ask themselves is: Do my acts and votes look —  or appear — to my constituents to be entirely above board?  Or, the obverse: Does this vote look fishy? Bought and paid for?

Where a school board member’s casting of a vote just doesn’t pass the public’s “smell test,” that elected officeholder is ethically obligated to recuse her- or himself from the vote.  Ultimately, what matters to the integrity of our representative governance is the community’s confidence that all votes are cast for a fair and proper purpose; that it be free from the appearance of impropriety.

You Decide.

So 97% and 96% of their 2016 campaign funds came from a single donor — charter school PAC.  What does that look like to you?  Should board members Ortega and Lebsack recuse themselves from the Classical Academy charter school vote?

What will they do?  Show up at the board meeting on December 19th and witness that for yourself.

Lynne Riddle, is a resident of Orange County, a retired federal judge and a daily activist.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at [email protected]