Culture war embroils Orange Unified school boardroom


School board members in the Orange Unified School District hear public comment during a heated meeting in January. Photo by Robin Estrin.

In Orange County this winter, a school district has been torn by debates over what kids learn in classrooms and how much control parents have, echoing national conversations about critical race theory, book banning, LGBTQ topics, and sexual education.

The Orange Unified School District educates about 26,000 students in well-regarded public schools. But tensions in the politically purple community have been on the rise for years, fed by Trump-era politics and the pandemic. 

In November, a parents’ rights activist named Madison Miner won a seat on the school board by about 200 votes, tipping the political balance of the body to the right. On the campaign trail, Miner was backed by conservative donors and endorsed by Southern California megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs, who has a history of encouraging school board members “to break down the barriers between church and state by sharing their faith during public school board meetings,” according to the investigative news outlet Reveal.

Miner’s priority is the district’s sex education curriculum, which was passed by the previous board after an 18-month review by parents, teachers, and medical experts. 

“My biggest issue is the transparency [and] the fact that you can't opt your child out of the gender ideologies,” Miner said in a January interview. “It's a little bit one-sided when it comes to all parents’ beliefs and all families’ morals and integrity.” 

By “gender ideologies,” Miner is referring to teaching the difference between gender and biological sex. Under California education code, parents can opt kids out of a lot of sex ed, but they can’t opt kids out of lessons about gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Miner and her supporters blame the district for recently lower test scores, accusing the administration of straying away from things like math, literacy and “true history.” 

“I believe getting back to basics with our education and giving these kids a chance with good, solid curriculum would be a really good thing,” she said. 

After Miner’s election, the new majority moved quickly to enact its vision for the district. In one of their first meetings, on January 5, the majority voted to fire the district’s superintendent Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen and put Assistant Superintendent Cathleen Corella on leave.

The board majority appointed Edward Velazquez, a retired educator living in Idaho, as interim superintendent the same day. 

The board still has three members who disagree with the majority and have been fighting the new direction.

“They want to have public dollars but have no public control, so the state pays for it, but the state has no say in it,” says board member Kristin Erickson. “That doesn't make sense and it's not really good for a democratic society.”

Orange Unified School District parents pack a school board meeting in early January, with dozens protesting the board majority’s decision to fire the superintendent. Photo by Robin Estrin.

In early February, a district parent filed a legal complaint alleging that the board majority had violated transparency laws.

Around the same time, the new superintendent temporarily suspended the district’s online library app, after a parent said her child had access to an age-inappropriate book.  

This turned up the heat for already-anxious parents, many of whom decried “book banning” at a February 2 board meeting that lasted nearly seven hours. 

Two weeks later, Velazquez, the interim superintendent, resigned.

Then, earlier this month, the hostility that adults had so far directed at each other turned to an Orange Unified high school senior and student board member named Ruby Hewitt. Hewitt had watched the tense meetings for months, and spoken out against the board majority’s decision-making several times. 

On March 2, a man in a red Make America Great Again hat walked into the school board meeting holding a video camera. The man spoke out against critical race theory and the state’s sexual education curriculum.

“Parents, you lose control of your kids when you drop them off at school. They become wards of the state,” he said. During the meeting, he directed the camera at the dais where Hewitt sat with other board members. Uncomfortable, Hewitt texted her dad in the audience, who asked the man to stop, but the man refused. So Hewitt spoke up.

“If you have been asked not to film students – kids – one of us whom is a minor, I would really appreciate if you respected that request,” she said to him.

Then, a woman sitting in the audience yelled something that made Hewitt’s stomach turn: “There's no safe spaces.”

From there, Hewitt remembers a lot of shouting, and teachers running to the front of the room to shield her. She started to cry.

Hewitt says now that in that moment, she felt alone.

“I'm in this room full of all of these adults. And, like, none of them care that I'm uncomfortable. And none of them care about my general safety or well being,” she says. “They were right. It's not a safe space, but it's because they're not making it one.”

Tensions in Orange Unified show no sign of resolving. By late March, trust between board members has all but eroded, parents have mounted a recall effort, and there’s at least one lawsuit looming. 

There is still no permanent superintendent.