South County Growing Pains : City, School Officials Meet to Ease Tensions

Times Staff Writer

Frustrations over mounting school enrollment in south Orange County led to angry exchanges in a meeting this week between the city of San Clemente and the Capistrano Unified School District, the largest in the south county.

Members of the San Clemente City Council and Planning Commission, who asked for Thursday’s meeting, complained that the school district has not been keeping the city adequately informed about burgeoning school enrollment in the rapidly growing area.

City officials said they were particularly upset that school officials ignored a request they made in November for information about enrollments projected for a proposed residential development that was being considered by the Planning Commission.

City officials also expressed concern that the school district is so financially strapped that it has proposed a special tax district to raise $70 million to build five new schools, including two in San Clemente.


‘There Is a Problem’

“If you’re $70 million down, there is a problem,” San Clemente Mayor Brian J. Rice said.

Speaking in a strained voice, school board President Brian R. Demsey replied that the voters of San Clemente were in large part responsible for the district’s shortfall because they defeated a series of bond proposals during the 1970s that would have financed construction of new schools.

“You guys are really angry,” school board member Paul B. Haseman said to city officials. “I didn’t realize you were so upset. We have no intention to be aloof or separate with our own turf.”


After tempers cooled, both sides agreed that better communication is needed. City and school district officials agreed to exchange meeting agendas and consult more regularly.

“It’s half our fault. It’s half your fault,” Rice said at the end of the 2-hour meeting--the first the Capistrano school board has had with city officials.

The district sprawls from Coto de Caza to the San Diego County line and from the coast to the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. Its 194 square miles encompass the cities of San Clemente, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo, as well as various unincorporated communities such as Laguna Niguel and Aliso Viejo.

Enrollment Boom

Because of rapid development of that area, the school district’s enrollment is exploding. District figures show that enrollment jumped 32% in the past 6 years. Its current enrollment of 23,048 students is expected to leap to 31,405 students by 1992--an increase of 36%.

The council endorsed the proposal for a special tax district after school officials said current funding shortfalls have forced the use of portable trailers to hold classes on many of the district’s campuses and caused chronic overcrowding of cafeterias and playgrounds.

To avoid doubling up some classes, the school district unveiled a plan last month to build new schools and refurbish old ones by making its entire population area a special tax district, also known as a Mello-Roos district. The district will be formed if two-thirds of the voters approve the plan in a May 9 election.

Special Tax


Capistrano Unified is seeking the new tax through a mechanism the Legislature passed in 1983 that allows an area to levy a special property tax--over and above the limits set by 1978’s Proposition 13--if voters agree to the plan.

City Councilwoman Holly Veale said the city often finds itself “flying by the seat of our pants” because of the district’s failure to provide input on development projects. Planning Commission Chairman Hal Joseph cited the request for information last November that he said was not answered soon enough.

At first, Demsey reacted sharply to the criticism: “To say that you’re not privy to the data, I would ask whether any of you got in your cars to drive to the school district to ask for it?”

Delay Explained

Demsey then explained that the delay was due to the absence of a key school official and the city’s demand that the information be provided in 2 days.

“We’re sorry that the information was not available,” Demsey said, adding that the district has previously complied with city requests for information.

James B. Hendrickson, San Clemente’s city manager, said the school district and the city were venting frustrations over the same problem: growth. The two agencies must deal with growth from different perspectives, he said. The city has to ensure that streets, sewers and other essential services are in place before homes go up. The school district, on the other hand, has to wait until people move in to receive state funding to build new schools.

As district Supt. Jerome R. Thornsley observed: “When you’re in a rapidly growing school district, you’re always playing catch-up.”