Unity Hard to Come By in Capistrano Unified

Times Staff Writer

In the Capistrano Unified School District, students routinely rank among the state's best, acing standardized tests and beating a well-worn path to top universities.

But outside the classroom, the district's school board and administrators have been waylaid by a string of controversies, many triggered by a battle with activist parents, that often make the institution look like an ill-behaved kindergarten class.

All seven trustees were the targets of an unsuccessful recall campaign, the veteran superintendent decided to step down, and allegations of wrongdoing launched an investigation by county prosecutors.

A new $35-million administration building and redrawn boundaries that will bring students from wealthy beach areas into a new high school with students from poorer families are just two of the controversies that have led to cross-charges of financial malfeasance and cul-de-sac bigotry.

"I have been involved in the district for many years and ... I've never seen it like this," said Patricia Kelley, a Mission Viejo city councilwoman who served as Parent Teacher Student Assn. president at three schools. "A lot of pressure has been building and a lot of discontent over the state of the school district."

Supt. James A. Fleming, 63, who announced his resignation this month after a 15-year tenure, said it was a shame to see the district's classroom accomplishments clouded by the turmoil. Fleming said he moved up his planned retirement because of the "hysteria" over allegations that he kept an "enemies list" of recall supporters.

"We're a great school district.... To have all this silliness occurring is so sad," he said. "It's a hell of a way to wrap up an otherwise distinguished career."

The 10th-largest school district in the state, Capistrano Unified has an annual budget of $578 million and academically tops every other district of similar size.

The district serves more than 50,000 students in a 195-square-mile swath of south Orange County that encompasses seven cities as well as unincorporated communities, including Ladera Ranch, where the median home price is $720,000. More than two-thirds of the students are white; 18% are Latino.

The district is blessed by its demographics. It includes a high concentration of high-income, involved parents, which tends to correlate with strong academic achievement. Nearly 99% of the district's seniors graduated in the 2004-05 school year, compared with nearly 85% statewide, state figures show.

Parents have the will, time and money to ensure the best for their children's education: In recent years, their tireless fund-raising brought in millions of dollars to ensure that third-grade class size did not exceed 20 pupils.

And those same qualities have come into play when parents clash with the Board of Trustees, which almost always votes unanimously.

In recent years, parents have protested the near-closure of three elementary schools in Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano and Aliso Viejo; the conversion of an elementary school into a K-8 in Rancho Santa Margarita; and the construction of and boundaries for San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, a $130-million school opening in fall 2007 that will draw some students from predominantly white, upper-class neighborhoods and others, many of them Latino, from working-class neighborhoods.

These controversies resulted in parents from disparate parts of the district coalescing in the spring of 2005 and focusing their efforts on a common goal: recalling the district's seven trustees and forcing the departure of its long-time superintendent.

"The problem was, we were fighting our battles in isolation," said L. Anthony "Tony" Beall, a Rancho Santa Margarita city councilman and recall supporter. But last year, "a critical mass was finally coming together."

In June 2005, parents with recall petitions began gathering signatures outside grocery and hardware stores, back-to-school nights and elsewhere.

At the same time, recall proponents grew increasingly critical of the board's decision to build a $35-million administration building while hundreds of classes were being held in aging portables. The administration center, an airy Mission-style building with expansive picture windows just east of Interstate 5 that opened in June, replaced a collection of ramshackle buildings, warehouses and rental units.

"It made all the sense in the world from a business standpoint to have all operations under one roof," Fleming said.

But recall supporters said that the project, funded by future redevelopment dollars and homeowners' Mello-Roos assessments, used up funds that should have been spent on school improvements. "The ripple effect of that beauty project is tragic," said Tom Russell, spokesman for the CUSD Recall Committee.

Trustees Sheila J. Benecke and Mike Darnold said the controversy over the administration building was a cover for the recall proponents' real concerns: the redrawing of high school boundaries and its racial implications.

"The leadership, the people who are speaking out, didn't really want to say what the issue truly was because they knew that the public wouldn't find that an admirable goal and wouldn't support them," said Benecke, of Laguna Niguel, who has been a trustee since 1992.

To recall each trustee, proponents needed the signatures of 20,421 registered voters who live within the district. On Nov. 8, they submitted petitions with about 25,000 signatures per trustee, but county Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley deemed so many of the signatures invalid that not a single trustee was forced into a recall election.

The bitterness over the recall effort was renewed when a disenchanted former district spokesman began releasing internal documents that, he said, showed the trustees kept an "enemies list" of names and personal information of parents, teachers and others who received e-mails from recall organizers.

David Smollar, who left the district in June, also said the registrar allowed him and another district administrator to view signatures on recall petitions -- which is illegal -- and had shared confidential information about the status of the signature-verification process before it was made public.

At its Tuesday meeting, the Board of Supervisors is expected to proceed with its investigation of the registrar's actions. A spokesman for Kelley, who has told supervisors he should not have allowed district officials to view the petitions, said the registrar would have no public comment until after the meeting.

Fleming said there was no "enemies list," only a spreadsheet created by the district to figure out if someone was hacking into its databases.

Trustees, who have expressed sadness at Fleming's impending departure, met Saturday to discuss the process for selecting a successor.

"I have nothing but respect for this superintendent. I hope we can find someone worthy of replacing him," Darnold said at the meeting marked by ringing praise -- including a standing ovation -- and outspoken criticism of the retiring administrator.

The board set Aug. 31 as the date of Fleming's retirement and appointed a three-member subcommittee to find an interim superintendent and begin looking for a firm to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent.

Acting in closed session, trustees also directed the district's legal counsel to secure the services of an independent investigator to look into "various allegations of wrongdoing by district employees."

Some are optimistic that Fleming's retirement will help diffuse the acrimony.

"I hope it will ease tension in the community and I hope we will be able to move forward as quickly as possible," said Sherine Smith, associate superintendent of secondary education.

But the controversy is far from over.

The district attorney's office has been conducting an investigation of the district for several months, though details have not been disclosed. Mission Viejo city officials have called for an audit of the district's construction funding. And the Board of Supervisors is expected to look into the registrar's actions.

In November, three trustees -- John Casabianca, Shelia J. Henness and Crystal Kochendorfer -- are up for reelection in what is likely to be a bruising battle as recall organizers are running a slate of candidates.

One of those hopefuls, Jack Brick, 70, a retired aerospace executive, said the last straw was the new administration building. "The portables continue to deteriorate. We see the Board of Trustees [and] the superintendent has a Taj Mahal built ... that ultimately will cost $50 million plus" including interest payments, he said. "That's a nice tribute to the administration which is unneeded."

Board President Marlene M. Draper said that, although she thinks a "silent majority" of the community strongly backs the district and its leaders, she fears that the constant barrage could affect district operations.

"We have some of the brightest and best teachers and support staff," said Draper, who has been on the board since 1988. "I would hate to see those individuals looking [at] other districts because of the controversies."

Teachers, who have had contentious contract negotiations with the district over the years, say they are not surprised by the recent revelations.

"For most teachers, the revelations ... have only served to validate their own distrust of district leadership," said Vicki Soderberg, president of the Capistrano Unified Educators Assn.

Barbara Shangraw, the mother of two district students and one recent graduate, said she has grown concerned by the "destructiveness" of the situation and hopes it settles down quickly.

"It detracts from people's ability to look at education first," said Shangraw, who serves as president of the district's council of Parent Teacher Student Assns. "Without saying who's right or wrong, this whole difficulty is not good" for students.

Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.

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