Ricci Graham, Daily Review Online (CA), Feb. 27
HAYWARD — Jeff Cook didn’t see this one coming.
Cook was assailed during the Hayward Unified School District Board of Education meeting on Wednesday night by members of the Latino community who were outraged by comments the new trustee made prior to a meeting last month.
A procession of leaders and members of the Latino community took turns calling Cook a “racist, bigot” and “xenophobe” after he referred to Latinos as “illegal aliens” and “selfish” during his opening comments of the Jan. 14 board meeting.
Cook called Wednesday’s attack “pretty vicious,” and said he simply wanted to voice his disapproval of students who skipped school to attend a December boycott to protest the decision by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to rescind a law that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain a California driver’s license.
Cook estimates the boycott cost the cash-strapped district anywhere from $100,000 and $200,000 in state funding because “25 percent” of the students were absent.
“We had a boycott of our schools and a boycott statewide protesting the governor’s rescinding of driver’s licenses for ‘illegal aliens,’“ Cook said last month. “I call for the community again to start being a little less selfish.”
Cook went on to suggest that parents who allowed students to participate in the boycott “owe us $35 a head,” which is what the district receives daily for each child in attendance.
“We’re killing ourselves trying to find a way to save programs and cut costs, and here we had teachers in some classes encouraging students to cut class to go to a political event,” Cook continued.
Cook apologized for those comments on Thursday, although he said he doesn’t recall making them.
“It’s regrettable,” Cook said. “I can’t remember exactly what I said that was so offensive. I am truly sorry.”
The apology, however, came a bit too late for some members of the Latino community.
“Comments like that really sound like an attempt to put Latinos in their place,” said Ruth Perez, a member of the Latino Leadership Round Table of Alameda County. “If we don’t say anything about it, it goes on.
“An apology is the first step that a person can take. That’s where you start, but it’s certainly not enough.”
Sarah Gonzalez, also a new board member, said it took several days for her to recover. The remarks, she said, reflect a lack of understanding of and sensitivity to the Latino community on Cook’s part.
“I was shocked when he said what he said,” said Gonzalez, a champion of ethnic students in the district. “It took me a couple of days to even think about how I was going to react.
“I do think he’s a decent person. He has very strong ideas, and sometimes we clash, because we come from a different perspective.”
For his part, Cook expressed contrition a day after he was publicly reprimanded. A staunch Republican, he noted that he was raised to “appreciate and respect” people of color by his father, Alden.
Cook believes his political leanings may have played a part in how his comments were interpreted.
“I’m the only Republican in town, and they think I have bigoted or extreme right-wing positions,” Cook said. “But they would be dead wrong. I truly find it troublesome for them to jump to calling me a racist and the assumption that I’m against all forms of bilingual education.”
Board President Paul Frumkin III said the reaction to Cook’s comments further illustrates that elected officials have to weigh their thoughts carefully when addressing the public.
“People make statements not realizing what their words mean,” Frumkin said.
Cook and Gonzalez were among three board members elected last fall. The other is Grant Peterson. Gonzales, Cook and Peterson were victorious, in part, because the community felt they could provide the leadership the district lacked.
The three received a great deal of support from the Latino community, which represents 45 percent of the 23,000 students enrolled in the district. Gonzalez acknowledged that Cook may have compromised his credibility in the Latino community with his comments.
But she believes it can be restored.
“One thing for Jeff to realize is he needs to build a bridge to understand a group of people who have been oppressed and exploited and then lumped into a criminal category as illegal aliens,” she said. “If he holds out a hand and wants to build a bridge, I don’t think it would damage his credibility.
“I think he gains credibility by being someone who wants to approach this issue in a consolatory fashion.”
Cook said that is exactly what he plans to do.
“It was particularly painful to hear their pain,” he said. “I told them I would address it at the next meeting.”