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Schools' year in review: Angst, accolades, scandal for O.C. schools

For much of 2012, public school officials wrestled with uncertainty over whether California voters would approve the Proposition 30 tax-hike initiative.

Had the ballot measure gone down in defeat Nov. 6, schools would have been dealt a deep blow to their state funding streams. But the $4.8 billion cut in education funding that Gov. Jerry Brown had threatened never materialized, and with Prop. 30's passage came a renewed sense of optimism and zeal among the county's 28 school districts.

In between those months of collective angst, many other events and developments took place on the local educational landscape. Here's a look back at some of Orange County's education stories:


Jan. 5: Gov. Jerry Brown announces that if voters don't approve tax increases set to appear on the November ballot as Proposition 30, he will recommend a $4.8 billion cut to K-12 schools and a $200 million cut to the University of California and California State University systems. The announcement is part of the governor's state budget proposal.


Feb. 10: Placentia's Valencia High School wins the 2012 Orange County Academic Decathlon, the school's second title in four years. The team edges out defending champion Westminster High for the crown, while Irvine's Woodbridge High finishes third. "We had a good feeling, but we just didn't know for sure until we heard our team called," Tessa Young, a senior on the team, says after the win. "It's so exciting. We are all so thrilled."

Feb. 15: A Register analysis of payroll costs finds that nearly 3,200 public school administrators, teachers and other employees in Orange County earned more than $100,000 in 2010-11, and 10 of them crossed the $250,000 mark. Even so, overall compensation at the county's K-12 public schools dipped 3 percent over the year prior, as workers took mandatory unpaid furlough days, wage cuts and freezes, and as their ranks thinned through attrition and layoffs.

Feb. 27: The Capistrano Unified School District fires three former head football coaches from their full-time teaching jobs, the culmination of a 16-month investigation into district employees accused of maintaining personal spending accounts with the now-defunct Lapes Athletic Team Sales sporting equipment company. All three – San Clemente High's Eric Patton, Capistrano Valley High's Charles "Chi Chi" Biehn, and Dana Hills High's Brent Melbon – maintain their innocence. Patton retires before termination proceedings are completed and receives a retirement-incentive bonus estimated at $79,559; Biehn and Melbon are appealing their terminations to the state.


March 3: Sam Nitz, from Pegasus Private School in Huntington Beach, outlasts more than 50 other competitors in the 2012 Orange County Scripps National Spelling Bee. Nitz, 13, correctly spells "olid," defined as a disagreeable smell, to win the crown. Nitz competes in May in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.; he is eliminated in the fourth round.

March 15: Orange County's 28 public school districts submit spending plans to county officials indicating they may cut more than 1,500 jobs and again increase class sizes, reduce staffing, shorten the school year and consider other cuts as they work to slash as much as $269 million in spending. The estimates are based on a worst-case scenario that assumes voters reject Prop. 30 in November.


May 8: County education officials announce five local educators as 2013 Orange County Teachers of the Year. The winners, selected from a group of 55 nominees, are: John Wood, a science teacher at Huntington Beach's Talbert Middle School; Deanna Zamiska, a third-grade teacher at Huntington Beach's Peterson Elementary; Victoria Castle, a geology instructor at Cypress College; David Goldenberg, an Advanced Placement World History teacher at Irvine's Beckman High; and Jennifer Sandland, a third-grade teacher at Tustin's Peters Canyon Elementary. Goldenberg is named in November as one of five 2013 California Teachers of the Year.

May 9: Emma Townley-Smith, a senior at Santa Ana's Orange County School of the Arts, is named a 2012 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, one of the nation's highest honors for graduating students. Townley-Smith, 18, is one of 141 U.S. seniors selected for exceptional accomplishments in academics or the arts. Townley-Smith is recognized for her work in creative writing. "It's an amazing feeling realizing that all the hard work I've been doing has paid off in an incredible way," Townley-Smith says. "Writing is something I really love to do, and to be recognized for that feels very special."


June 5: Al Mijares, a former Santa Ana Unified superintendent, replaces retiring Orange County schools Superintendent William Habermehl as the county's public education chief. Habermehl's legacy is cemented in his relentless drive to bring visibility and prominence to schools – most notably, the O.C. Teacher of the Year awards that he transformed into a flashy media event. "This has truly been the best job in the world," Habermehl says of his 11-year tenure. "I've been so fortunate to work with some amazing people who wave worked hard to educate our young people."

June 12: Former Cal State Dominguez Hills President Mildred García becomes head of California State University, Fullerton. In her first week, García outlines her plans to increase graduation rates, elevate the university's profile and encourage more undergraduates to get involved in research. "I never imagined I would be a university president, much less the president of a school like CSUF, which I believe has the potential to become one of the premier institutions in this country," she says of the 34,500-student campus.

June 24: The Register publishes its second annual list of Orange County's top 10 high school graduates who will change the world. The honorees, whose accomplishments far belie their youth, are: Aliza Braunstein, Dana Hills High; Briana Perlson, Brea Olinda High; Emma Townley-Smith, O.C. School of the Arts; Gita Bhattacharya, Troy High; Justin Taleisnik, Beckman High; Meaghan Hurr, St. Margaret's Episcopal; Rohan Rastogi, University High; Ryan Pallas, Tesoro High; Spenser Apramian, Sage Hill; Steven Holcomb, Santa Margarita Catholic.


July 10: A Saddleback Valley Unified School District walk-on football coach is let go and two other high school coaches are formally reprimanded after being accused of receiving thousands of dollars in gifts and checks via an elaborate kickback scheme involving the Lapes Athletic Team Sales company. Mission Viejo High walk-on football coach Mike Milner is not permitted to return to his coaching assignment. Trabuco Hills High head football coach Scott Orloff and El Toro High head baseball coach Mike Gonzales are accused of accepting unauthorized merchandise and gifts from Lapes. The actions follow a similar investigation by Capistrano Unified into the matter.


Aug. 20: The Fullerton Union High School District disciplines a high school baseball coach for using vulgar, degrading and "extremely offensive" language in front of his student-athletes. Marc Patino, a social science teacher at Fullerton Union High School, used a derogatory term for Jewish people on "multiple occasions," uttered profanity and expletives "frequently" and directed "egregious" comments toward junior Grant Sims, a baseball player who filed a complaint, according to Patino's written reprimand. Patino did not respond to requests for comment. Athletic officials hail the student's decision to come forward as an important means by which schools can stamp out strong language used on athletic fields.

Aug. 23: The Orange Unified School District announces that Anaheim's Canyon High School will eliminate a Latino-themed school spirit day called Señiores and Señoritas, after a former student complains that several students came to school in June dressed as gang members, gardeners, pregnant teens and Border Patrol agents who walked around campus pretending to arrest their peers. District officials pledge to better review student activities to ensure they're culturally sensitive and also order Canyon administrators and staff to undergo sensitivity training.


Oct. 1: Two senior administrators receive written reprimands from Fullerton Union High School District for failing to take appropriate action after learning that Troy High School's student-government adviser rigged the spring 2012 student election. Principal Margaret Buchan is cited for failing to follow "explicit directives" from her superiors to "immediately" remove teacher Jennifer Redmond as student-government adviser, while former Assistant Principal Shane York is cited for "abdicating" his oversight responsibilities of Redmond. Redmond also received a warning letter in her personnel file.

Oct. 11: Only 30 percent of Orange County's public schools meet 2012 federal academic performance targets, down from 39 percent the year prior. The rest are labeled as failing because they cannot keep pace with increasingly rigorous achievement standards required by the much-maligned, federal No Child Left Behind law. In contrast, 85 percent of O.C. schools achieve their state testing targets for 2012. "I would not say 70 percent of our schools are failing," county schools Superintendent Al Mijares says of the disparate performance measures. "But the way the law measures student achievement does not reflect the gains our schools make each year."

Oct. 26: The Register publishes a story revealing that a set of exam scores was dropped from the spring 2012 semester grades of 100 geometry students at Irvine's Woodbridge High School, boosting the final letter grades of 36 students without teacher Alan Doan's knowledge or consent. The Irvine Unified School District defends Woodbridge Principal Jason Viloria's actions, saying that Doan called in sick during the last five days of the school year and did not respond to administrators when asked whether he would be completing his grading duties. Doan said he completed his grading duties and only called in sick to avoid Viloria and Assistant Principal Christopher Krebs, whom Doan alleges were trying to drive him out of Woodbridge through a campaign of harassment and intimidation.

The case highlights the grading autonomy that teachers are guaranteed under state law – and how muddied the waters become when school officials insist they must intervene. Doan is put on paid leave shortly after the story is published, accused of retaliating against a student who complained about him.


Nov. 6: Public schools, colleges and universities avoid a shorter school calendar, furloughs, increased student fees and millions of dollars in other cuts to programs and services after voters approve Prop. 30. four weeksStudents at Cal State Fullerton, the county's largest university, have their tuition rolled back by 9 percent, and the campus scratches a proposed enrollment reduction of up to 2,000 students planned for fall 2013. At UC Irvine, the county's only UC campus, tuition remains flat, and the threat of a midyear tuition increase of as much as 20 percent falls by the wayside.

Nov. 25: The Register publishes a four-part report about Orange County educators who've lost their teaching license in recent years. The report concludes that at least 36 educators from 14 school districts have left their jobs under a cloud of suspicion since 2007 – and not just for sex crimes against children. The educators also were accused of showing up at school intoxicated, threatening students with violence, showing graphic photos to students, and yanking, smacking and grabbing kids.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7802, or Twitter: @MartindaleScott

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