Criminal Charges and Residency Questions Amp Up Westminster School Board Races

Westminster School District.

Westminster School Board member Frances Nguyen (center) and recently resigned member Xavier Nguyen (right).

An elected Westminster school board member has resigned in the face of criminal residency fraud charges.

Similar residency questions now surround another.

All of the drama comes ahead of an election this November where two seats on the Westminster School District’s Board of Trustees are up for grabs. The newly vacant seat could either be filled by special election or appointment.

And as officials reel from the voter fraud charges brought by Orange County prosecutors, community members envision new possibilities for the district pending the outcome of the contests and wonder how much more representative future policy making can be for the area’s children and their educational needs.

Prosecutors in July filed three felony charges against former school board director Xavier Nguyen, alleging he submitted fraudulent candidate address papers and perjured himself. Nguyen announced his resignation to the school board on Aug. 13.

Nguyen, who didn’t respond to phone and text messages seeking comment Tuesday, is the second school board member in the last eight years to bow out, facing such allegations.

Since his resignation, the district as of Aug. 18 cropped him out of the website’s school board group photo.

“Districts were established to ensure diversity and representation and I have committed to prosecuting those who break the law by lying about their residency in order to win elected office,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said through a spokesperson Tuesday. “These actions are deceitful and deprive members of the public of their collective voice in how they want their community to be run.”

He added: “Defrauding voters and preventing members of the public from having their voices heard will not be tolerated in Orange County.”

Now similar controversy surrounds the elected school board’s president, Frances Nguyen, who faces claims she re-registered her address this year in an area close to her school district but actually falling in the neighboring Huntington Beach’s Ocean View School District.

Those claims are based on county voter records showing that Nguyen in recent weeks had been registered in the wrong area. The records were obtained by Westminster resident and city politics observer Camilla Overbeek, who posted them online and were first reported by the Orange County Register.

The records also show that days before the county’s Aug. 7 filing deadline for elected office candidates, Nguyen registered again to vote at an address falling back within the appropriate district boundaries, though critics point out she may have vacated her seat under state law once she registered at an address in the wrong jurisdiction while still participating in board meetings.

Reached for comment Aug. 16 about the possibility she needs to vacate her seat, Nguyen over the phone said she doesn’t currently live in the wrong district but is in the process of “getting more information.”

Responding to additional Voice of OC follow-up requests for comment on Aug. 17, Nguyen sent a thumbs-up emoji text. She didn’t respond to more phone and text messages seeking comment after that.

A fellow school board member, Jamison Power, has since sent a letter to the district superintendent, Cyndi Paik, asking for a probe with relevant agencies like the District Attorney’s Office for clarity on Nguyen’s eligibility as a board member and as a candidate again seeking office this year.

Nguyen in her current term represents the “Area 1” portion of the school district on its five-member board, where community organizer David Johnson has filed to run for the seat in November.

The Ocean View district address she had re-registered for — according to the voter records — borders Area 4 of the Westminster school district. Power, the incumbent, isn’t running for reelection in that district.

Should district officials make Nguyen vacate her seat, it would leave two vacancies on the board ahead of November.

A school district has 60 days to either appoint or call for an election when there’s a vacancy on the governing board, under California elections law.

Now district officials and residents are looking at the future of the school board and what it can look like pending the outcome of the to-be-filled vacancy and upcoming elections, especially at a time when the very format of K-12 public education, rocked by a coronavirus public health crisis and recent social justice movements, is shaky.

Niki Nguyen, a 21-year-old who graduated from high school out of the district and is now a Stanford University student, said the recent and potential openings on the board could present a chance for more representation from people who live in the right areas.

“This is an opportunity for people from the community … to be able to sit at the table,” Nguyen said.

Amid recent movements pushing for ethnic studies at schools — something Gov. Gavin Newsom made a requirement for colleges in an executive order this week — and diversified curriculums and teaching staff, Nguyen said “Having skin in the game impacts your world view.”

Overbeek, the resident who obtained Frances Nguyen’s address records, said the recent events are a rallying cry for residents concerned about their children’s education to start “paying more attention to local politics. It can make or break us.”

“The people of this district have a right to be represented by people who actually live here and are vested in the community. And they need to have confidence in us that we are doing all we can to ensure that,” said board member Power at the Aug. 13 meeting at which Xavier Nguyen resigned.

While stopping short of accusing any of his board colleagues of wrongdoing, he added that “having such questions raised about multiple board members in such a short span of time is not normal.”

Power requested staff come back at the next school board session with information about establishing a minimum time-based residency requirement for candidates for the board of trustees.

He also called that night for the “immediate resignation of any board member who does not live in the area that they represent, or who has falsified residency information in order to hold or maintain public office.”

Doing so, he said, would allow the people who live in this district and in each respective area to elect someone who lives there to represent them.

With multiple questions remaining about the future makeup of the board, including the possible appointment or special election to fill Xavier Nguyen’s seat as well as the standing of Frances Nguyen’s reelection status, the board is scheduled to next meet Sept. 10.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.