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Unhappy O.C. parents seek to oust 6 trustees

Times Staff Writer

School’s out for summer, but parents and community members are hard at work trying to oust trustees in three of Orange County’s largest school districts.

The targets include a conspiracy-minded board member in Orange, a newly appointed Anaheim trustee who once suggested billing Mexico for the schooling of illegal immigrants, and four board members in the Capistrano Unified School District who supported a former superintendent who was indicted this year. These districts are responsible for educating close to 115,000 children -- nearly 25% of the public school students in the county -- and spend more than $1 billion annually.

Though it is often difficult for volunteers to gather enough signatures to put such local matters on the ballot, experts say the notoriety of these trustees makes it likely that voters will be deciding the fate of these board members in coming months.

Efforts to oust trustees crop up occasionally, but elections officials couldn’t recall a time when so many were occurring simultaneously.

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Political scientists said the recall efforts didn’t mean that some overarching dissatisfaction with public schools has infected Orange County.

“I don’t know if it’s a part of a broader trend; these are each separate situations,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange.

Mark Petracca, a political scientist at UC Irvine, said: “This is just all coincidence.”

In Orange, upset parents and community members are collecting signatures to recall board member Steve Rocco, who was elected in 2004 with nary a campaign appearance or flier.

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At the time, his quirky style and conspiracy theories -- he contends local authorities murdered his father -- called into question voters’ attention to school board races. Many in the district suspect voters chose Rocco because on the ballot he listed his occupation as a teacher, although he has not taught in years.

Since his election, Rocco, who always wears a knit cap and sunglasses at board meetings, regularly has made rambling statements about “the partnership,” a cabal of powerful individuals he says runs the county and has tried to assassinate him. He refuses to be fingerprinted, so he can’t visit schools.

He has abstained from scores of votes and refuses to participate in closed school board meetings to discuss issues such as personnel matters and litigation. He sued the district after board members censured him -- and lost.

Parents became upset over Rocco’s behavior almost as soon as he took office, but say they launched the recall this summer because they feared he would be reelected in 2008 if he could list “governing school board member” as his occupation.

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“The reason we’re doing it now, and the sole reason, is we cannot afford to have him run as an incumbent,” said Terri Rasmussen, a district parent who is leading the recall effort. “He does absolutely nothing for the students, the community and the school district. He is a liability, based on the inappropriate things that he says.” Rocco’s critics must turn in 11,061 valid signatures by Dec. 5 to place the matter on the February ballot.

When a reporter telephoned him several times at home last week, Rocco repeatedly hung up the phone. But in an interview in March, he told The Times that recall threats were being prompted by his fellow board members, who are themselves a part of “the partnership” and are bent on preventing the public from learning about the clandestine organization. “I try to tell the truth and try to get it out. They find ways of stopping you. Everybody has more rights than I do. [But] I’m still here, and I’ve got two more years,” he said.

In Anaheim, the death of Trustee Denise Mansfield-Reinking prompted the Board of Education to appoint former Trustee Harald Martin to the opening. But a combination of his past, including the proposal to bill Mexico for schooling illegal immigrants, and a poor showing in November, when he came in seventh of eight candidates seeking a spot on the board, has created an unusually broad coalition seeking his ouster.

Liberals, conservatives, teachers and students who are demanding his ouster must collect about 2,300 valid signatures by Aug. 20 to rescind the appointment and force a special election.

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Martin, 52, declined to comment last week, but in a message sent to supporters, he wrote: “A bipartisan group of pro-illegal immigration groups has joined together to demand my removal from the Anaheim Union High School Board of Trustees. It’s because I believe in the rule of law and I won’t apologize for pointing out the dangers and costs of illegal immigration to our community.”

Martin outlined his experiences as an immigrant and as a member of the military, the Anaheim police and the Anaheim school board for eight years until he lost his reelection bid in 2004. Among the accomplishments he cited were making neighborhoods in Anaheim safer, creating after-school sports activities, and championing a 2.0 GPA graduation requirement.

In southern Orange County, the Capistrano Unified School District is seeing its second recall effort since 2005.

Most of the district’s 56 schools are well-regarded, but its trustees and administrators have been mired in conflicts in recent years. Critics have loudly protested the location of a new high school, criticized attendance boundary changes and fought construction of a $35-million administration complex while hundreds of classes were being held in aging portables.

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The critics tried to recall the seven trustees in 2005, but didn’t collect enough signatures. However, they succeeded in electing three candidates to the school board in November. In May, former Supt. James Fleming was indicted on felony charges of misappropriating public funds, using district money to influence an election and conspiracy, and former Assistant Supt. Susan McGill was indicted on charges of conspiracy and perjury.

The pair pleaded not guilty in July.

Several weeks later, critics announced the launch of a recall campaign against the four remaining old-guard trustees: Sheila Benecke, Mike Darnold, Marlene Draper and Duane Stiff. The CUSD Recall Committee and the county registrar of voters are still working on the language of the petitions, but recall committee spokesman Tom Russell hopes to begin gathering signatures in a couple weeks. The group will have 160 days to gather at least 20,000 voter signatures per trustee.

“We have to finish the job,” he said. The old trustees have proven they do not understand and they are rejecting the mandate for change.”

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Draper and Darnold said they feared that the recall would be disruptive and divisive.

“It’s going to be a very difficult time, I think, for the school district,” Draper said. “My focus will remain on doing everything I can to continue to provide an excellent education for our students.”

Attempts to reach Benecke and Stiff were unsuccessful.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Trust questioned

Parents and community members are trying to oust six trustees in three of Orange County’s largest school districts. A look at the targeted school board members and districts:

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Anaheim Union

High School District

Enrollment: 33,076 in grades 7-12

Annual expenses: $363.4 million

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Targeted: Harald Martin

Status: Critics must gather about 2,300 signatures of registered district voters by Aug. 20 to force a special election.

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Orange Unified School District

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Enrollment: 30,327 in K-12

Annual expenses: $239.4 million

Targeted: Steve Rocco

Status: Parents must turn in 11,061 valid signatures by Dec. 5 to place the recall on the February ballot.

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Capistrano Unified School District

Enrollment: 51,512 in K-12

Annual expenses: $446.8 million

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Targeted: Sheila Benecke, Marlene Draper, Mike Darnold, Duane Stiff

Status: Once the registrar of voters certifies the recall petitions, proponents will have 160 days to gather at least 20,000 voter signatures per trustee.

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Enrollment statistics are from the 2006-07 school year. Total expenses are from the 2005-06 school year.

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Source: California Department of Education. Graphics reporting by Seema Mehta


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