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Slate of critics elected to Capistrano Unified board of trustees

Times Staff Writer

A suburban revolt in south Orange County continued Tuesday as critics of the embattled Capistrano Unified School District claimed three seats on its board of trustees, their latest effort to reform what they say is a corrupt and dysfunctional panel.

The “ABC slate” of Ellen Addonizio, Anna Bryson and Larry Christensen, each running in a separate district, won easy victories over two incumbents and five other challengers.

They received between 40% and 58% of the vote, a measure that critics and observers said was indicative of voters’ unhappiness with the current leadership.

“Quite clearly, there is a mandate that there be change and reform in this district,” said Tom Russell, spokesman for the CUSD Recall Committee, which fielded the ABC slate and unsuccessfully sought to recall the entire school board last year.

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Although many of Capistrano’s 56 schools are ranked among the state’s best, the district has been shaken by controversies, including an ongoing criminal investigation of the district, the resignation of the district’s long-time superintendent following allegations that he kept an “enemies list,” and disputes over attendance boundaries, a new high school’s location, portable classrooms and a costly administration center.

There is still room for conflict, because after the three new members are sworn in Dec. 11 the old guard will retain a four-member majority.

But UC Irvine political science professor Mark Petracca said that given the newcomers’ decisive victory, veteran board members could shift their votes.

That depends on whether they “have gotten the message from this election that people in this community have had it,” he said.

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Russell said that a recall attempt against the four incumbent board members was also a possibility.

“We started this with the idea there was a job to complete. It’s still not finished,” he said.

“We certainly have multiple options to how we’re going to [finish] cleaning house at CUSD.”

The board, which oversees 50,000 students and a $563-million budget, has for years been run by longtime trustees.

Trustees have typically retired before their terms expired, and the board appointed replacements who then ran as incumbents in the next election.

Unlike previous years, incumbent Crystal Kochendorfer announced this summer her intention to retire, creating the first open seat in nearly a decade.

Incumbents Shelia J. Henness and John Casabianca fought to hold onto their seats but were soundly defeated.

Casabianca declined to comment on the results, other than to say, “I hope the board will continue in the same direction we have been going since I’ve been on the board. We have an outstanding school district.”

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Despite the bitter tone of the campaign, board Chairwoman Marlene Draper and the new trustees pledged to work together.

“As long as their focus is on education and children, which they have stated it is, we’ll move forward,” Draper said. “I would certainly hope [the negativity] stops.... I think it’s time for this community to heal.”

Christensen, whose first priority is an audit of the district’s finances and improving relations with parents, said he wants to work with the four incumbent board members, and that he hopes he and the rest of slate can peel off at least one of their votes to create a new majority.

“We don’t want to come in as an adversarial group, one group against another,” he said.

“We do want to work together.”

Bryson, whose priorities include fewer portable classrooms and making board business more accessible to the public, said she hoped incumbents took note of voter unhappiness. “The election is over. It’s time to get down to work for the children,” she said.

“I believe that those [incumbents] who remain see the handwriting on the wall. The taxpayers want a different type of commitment from its board. They want trustees who do, in fact, address their specific needs: open books, fewer portables ... different types of planning. This is what they said at the ballot box.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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