Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.
Lydia is back at Romero Cruz Academy.
Last month, I highlighted how Santa Ana Unified School District officials fumbled the renaming process at Romero Cruz Academy, leaving out the first name of one of the city’s pioneers in getting kids access to dual immersion education programs.
The flub deeply angered her 87-year old father, Sam, a well-known and vocal Santa Ana small businessman and civic activist who lost his daughter when she died in 1996 at the age of 35 from a brain aneurysm.
She grew up in Santa Ana, attended local schools, was active in local associations and after graduating from college she moved back to Santa Ana, becoming a leader on dual immersion instruction – a multi-language approach to teaching students.
“Lydia knew that it’s OK to be Latina, to speak Spanish as well as English,” said then-Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez when the elementary school was first named for her in 2000.
“It’s OK to be from Santa Ana and, regardless of where you come from, that all of us have the potential to affect everyone else’s life.”
After writing my Jan. 25 column, it didn’t take long for Santa Ana school district officials to restart the process of fixing their oversight.
Back in 2019, then-Lydia Romero Cruz Elementary school was merged with Spurgeon Intermediate in Santa Ana, with a combined name of Romero Cruz Academy.
Yet seeing his daughter’s first name removed from the school hit Sam hard.
The legendary civic activist told me he was stunned when he saw the school name, never thinking his daughter’s first name would be removed from the school named after her.
Beyond his own frustrations, Sam felt it was important that girls attending the academy understand who it was named after and – more importantly – be able to see themselves in Lydia’s example and name on their school.
Sam had been working inside channels to get the name updated since he realized the glitch and last summer, with the help of Santa Ana Unified School District Board Member John Palacios, even got a commitment from district Superintendent Jerry Almendariz to update the name.
Yet despite everyone agreeing, the actual name change didn’t happen.
After months of inaction, Sam did what every heavy-hitting civic activist does – he went public, feeling it was vital to be vocal and active, representing his daughter and ensuring her memory was properly recognized.
Especially as he got older.
I’ve known Sam since Voice of OC launched back in 2009.
I used to visit his Catholic gift shop on Main Street during regular beat walks where we mainly chatted about downtown development battles and the importance of civic activism, of people getting involved, taking charge of the reins of government.
Sam personifies the preamble to the state’s open meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.
“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
I’ve always drawn inspiration from Sam’s steely toughness and ability to keep advocating for his community, staying positive while being critical and not giving up on demanding good government.
Sam has been fighting on behalf of the Logan neighborhood where he grew up for years and after a recent video town hall we hosted on lead contamination in local neighborhoods, he mentioned the glitch to me.
Sam’s main message to me is always about resilience, the need to stay on top of government officials to be responsive to community needs.
Whether they are Democrats or Republicans, officials can be forgetful.
Thus, residents need to stay engaged to make self-government work.
People like Sam save our democracy for the rest of us.
Like many civic investigations, Sam’s story about the school seemed unbelievable.
As I started calling around to officials to see if he was right about the renaming issue, I was struck at how something so straightforward and generally supported by all sides could have fallen aside.
Yet it did.
School district officials weren’t exactly excited to discuss how they dropped the ball on this one, but to their credit did admit that it was dropped and said they’d work to fix the situation.
Now, while officials initially seemed to indicate the renaming process would take months – noting a formal process under the state’s education code for renaming schools – after a few days they changed tack and processed the change as an administrative fix.
School district officials immediately put the issue in front of board members for a final decision last Tuesday.
They also already updated the name on the school’s website.
Indeed, at the Feb. 8 school board meeting, the renaming was officially put back on the Santa Ana Unified School board agenda and approved by board members unanimously.
Yet the delay on something so simple like the renaming has board members asking questions about a seeming lack of institutional follow through at the school district.
School Renaming Shows Officials They Can Quickly Move on Critical Issues
Indeed, on the night that Lydia was put back into the Romero Cruz name, parents were asking school board members why Wilson High School has gone months without a permanent principal.
Board member Valerie Amezcua publicly said the issue of the longstanding principal vacancy at Wilson made her embarrassed, especially for assuming everything was being handled.
There’s no excuse for so many interims at a school, she said.
Amezcua pointed to the Romero Cruz issue as an example of how things can move quickly.
“You moved quick on Sam Romero because the Voice of OC wrote an article,” she said.
Indeed, these kinds of delays prompted me to keep looking a little deeper, a look that eventually connected me with Santa Ana Unified School District board President Rigo Rodriguez.
Rodriguez agreed the delays on Romero Cruz and Wilson indicated school district officials have to work on institutional follow through and improving systems.
It’s something that might not generate big headlines, but ultimately makes a big difference in delivering effective services to taxpayers, he told me.
“I’m glad the board made a decision last night for all the reasons that were mentioned during the meeting about Sam Romero and his daughter and their impact on the city. It’s a wonderful gesture. The board has always been willing to support this,” Rodriguez told me in a phone interview last Wednesday.
Rodriguez also agreed the school renaming episode points out a critical flaw, one he says has been one of his main goals as a board member during his tenure.
“We have a system in the district, with a capital S, that is very bureaucratic,” he said.
“Thing is, it did not start in January 2020 when the new Superintendent came in. He inherited a system that is quite outdated both in terms of the information, technology, HR, payroll – you name it.”
This is a school district, one of the nation’s largest, that has had a revolving door of superintendents – I counted four superintendents in the last five years.
That’s a lot of turnover.
Rodriguez told me that the new superintendent is addressing the issue and has in the last three months created an executive cabinet to lead the district and fill critical gaps.
“Certain things are falling through the cracks,” Rodriguez said. “And they will continue to fall through the cracks through this next six months and this year. But I want folks to understand is the broader system is what we are focusing on.”
Rodriguez argues that without strong systems in place, follow through becomes jeopardized.
If you can’t correctly get a new sign up at a school or get a principal hired in a timely manner, how can residents expect you to handle complex issues like restorative justice practices or mental health outreach or school police?
There are people who fall through the cracks in every system.
Bureaucrats call those system failures.
Sam broke it down much more simply.
“They gotta be more considerate. Not just do wild shit that hurts people. That’s what they did,” he said referring to the distress of recent months over the school naming issue .
When I had the pleasure of calling Sam last week and informing him that Santa Ana Unified School District board officials unanimously voted to put his daughter’s name – Lydia – back on the school, he expressed appreciation.
But he’s also staying vigilant.
“I’m keeping tabs on what they’re going to do,” Sam told me.
“A lot of times what happens is you believe government and you drop your guard,” he added.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Seeing is believing.”
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