A bitter funding dispute between Santa Ana City Council members and school district officials could leave thousands of kids without crossing guards this year in a town where drivers treat the streets like freeways.

“Come the next school year, in August, we would not have any crossing guards assisting students” without some kind of agreement, said Public Works Director Nabil Saba in response to council questions on Tuesday.

The issue centers around City Hall’s years-long arrangement to pay for crossing guards that serve the Santa Ana Unified School District, guiding children through busy intersections to as many as 41 schools between the district and two others in central Orange County. 

And when a new $7 million crossing guard agreement landed on council members’ desks at their regular meeting on Tuesday night, putting City Hall on the hook for as much as the next five years, a majority of them opted to hold off.

Some council members questioned why they were paying for a service they saw as falling under the district’s charge — and why the district had refused to even split the costs with a city facing its own financial problems.

And a set of district-funded benefits for elected leaders of the separate school agency – like a $186 annual Elks Lodge membership and reimbursement of a board member’s employer for paid time off – had some City Council members on Tuesday ready to end the arrangement altogether. 

But there’s still hope for some other solution, with council members voting 5-2 that night to delay the crossing guard decision to next month, with council members Johnathan Ryan Hernandez and Ben Vazquez in favor of passing the agreement that night. 

They argued the city should be a partner with the district, while others criticized school officials for refusing to come to the table in the first place. 

Now local leaders have until June 20 to sort it all out, when City Hall staff are tasked with coming back to council members with options for offsetting the crossing guard costs through other ways, like charging SAUSD for the use of city facilities and calls for police response to campus incidents.

It’s tapped into a long-simmering political divide between council members on the issue of OC’s second-largest school district.

And a grisly mental image.

At one point, those in support of the crossing guard payment, like Councilmember Ben Vazquez, accused those who wanted to reject the agreement that night, like Mayor Valerie Amezcua, of “playing chicken” with children’s lives.

Amezcua – a former district school board member and retired probation officer–  responded: 

“Protecting children: I’ve been doing it a long time. So when we talk about children getting hit by cars – yup, seen it up close and personal. It doesn’t look like the movies.” 

She continued: “When they get hit — one shoe is over here, one shoe is over here — brain matter doesn’t look like it does on TV.”

Amezcua said she “wholeheartedly” wants children safe, but Santa Ana Unified – “they have to pay half.”

“No one is asking them to pay the full $7 million,” said Amezcua, who questioned the district’s recent spending choices, including the reimbursement of one school board member’s employer, the county Dept. of Education, for paid time off to perform school board duties.

A spokesperson for the school district, Fermin Leal, said it’s a common type of arrangement for school board members who work under the demands of public education themselves. 

In a Wednesday phone interview, Leal gave an example: “Let’s say a board member is a teacher and a board meeting is called for a special reason, and then the board member has to attend or use their pay or sick time, or lose that compensation from their job.”

He added: “From what I’ve seen, this is common across other districts and public agencies.”

It’s also authorized by state law, Section 44987 of the California Education Code. 

“The priorities are different at SAUSD,” Amezcua said on Tuesday night without naming the board member with the paid time off arrangement, Katelyn Brazer Aceves.

Councilmember David Penaloza, however, did. 

He also took aim at a district-funded Elks Lodge membership for Board Member Alfonso Alvarez, who Penaloza said one can find “sitting at the bar drinking by himself a number of times a week.”

Requests for comment from Alvarez and Brazer Aceves went unreturned on Wednesday night.

Leal, in response, said the board approved Alvarez’s membership on March 28 and that it costs $186 per year.

He said it’s not a “personal” membership to the Elks Lodge, but one for official district business, and added that it “rotates” among board members who decide every year who the membership should go to. Alvarez, Leal said, is in his second year. 

“The Elks Lodge supports our AVID program, high school athletics, donations of school supplies, and many other resources for SAUSD. Each summer, the Elks Lodge provides thousands of backpacks filled with school supplies for students, and provides toys for thousands of students during the Christmas season,” Leal said.

Councilmember Jessie Lopez pushed back on her colleagues’ characterizations of the school board.

“We should not be throwing stones at other agencies because we also have things that we discuss here for whatever reason, that other agencies can critique us on,” said Lopez.

She recalled the city’s agreement to fund a two-week private security detail for Amezcua, who in response that night said there were credible threats to her family.

Lopez said there’s “no way” that she would support letting “the kids cross Fairhaven without having guidance.”

“We experience a high amount of pedestrian deaths in the city and cyclists being hit,” Lopez said. “The school district is not our enemy, they need to be a community partner.” 

Likewise, Vazquez said, “Twisting an arm to form a relationship is not a way to go about it.”

Bacerra said a partnership goes two ways. 

“Partner means we need to have somebody else to partner with, right? It’s not a solo act,” Bacerra said. “What you heard tonight is that they are not willing to partner with us.”

Councilmember Thai Viet Phan agreed: “We’ve been working on this issue for two years. We raised this concern with them multiple times.”

Leal, asked to respond, said, “We have been having open conversations at our board meetings and community town halls where we have invited council members. I can’t comment on the district not being responsive, I’m not aware that that’s an issue.”

He said it’s the city that’s responsible for its public right-of-ways – streets and sidewalks – and that “if we took on the role of funding part of it, there would be liability issues.”

“For example, let’s say there’s an incident that results in a claim – then who would be responsible? The city or the school district? We’re not responsible for streets and sidewalks,” Leal said.

Still, Amezcua wondered where else the crossing guard money could go.

“Can you imagine the parks and programs and the youth center we could open up? I’m not going to support this item, and I will not, until they come to the table and they say, ‘Let’s agree to disagree, but we’ll help pay.’ Yes the city is liable, but so are they.”

Phan proposed finding a way to offset the costs by coming down on the district in other ways. 

“I’m open to this idea, because you’re right, I don’t want to see any kids not have crossing guards or folks assisting them to cross the street,” Phan said. “But I guess I’m trying to figure out … whether there are other ways for the city to charge the school district for services we provide.” 

City Manager Kristine Ridge said staff would come back at the council’s June 20 meeting with some options. 

“Most recently, I did have a productive conversation with the superintendent, and we’re going to explore volunteer opportunities,” Ridge said.

Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez defended the crossing guard agreement while also calling the district out. 

“Although I don’t agree with SAUSD’s reckless and irresponsible decision to not fund this, I am going to do what is needed to take care of the children in our village.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @brandonphooo.

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