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Capo Unified seeking renters

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Times Staff Writer

Capistrano Unified School District officials announced Tuesday that they would lease out one-third of their $36-million administration center. Construction of the three-building complex, which district critics called an unnecessary and extravagant “Taj Mahal,” prompted turmoil in the South County school district.

The center, which opened in June, is an airy, Mission-style complex with expansive picture windows just east of Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano. District officials, who had been operating out of ramshackle buildings and warehouses, said the move to the center was vital, particularly because the district is expected to add 10,000 students over the next decade.

The announcement means the district will consolidate its operations into two buildings, freeing up 15,000 square feet to lease in the third building.

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According to district projections, the lease revenue will be used to annually give $25,000 each to seven elementary schools, $60,000 each to two middle schools and $125,000 to a high school.

“The district’s Education Center is a valuable asset and a good investment for the future,” Supt. Dennis Smith said in a news release. “We now have the flexibility to use this building for important school support purposes and to lease additional available space to provide extra funds for our schools.”

Capistrano Unified serves more than 50,000 students in a 195-square-mile swath of South County that encompasses seven cities, as well as unincorporated communities.

The administrative center was built with redevelopment and property tax assessment funds.

Construction of the center was controversial in 2005, when community members and parents grew increasingly critical of the board’s decision to build it while hundreds of classes were being held in aging trailers. The center was a catalyst for a recall attempt against the district’s seven trustees. The recall failed to make the ballot, but three recall advocates were elected in November.

Recall advocates said the decision to lease showed that building the administrative complex was wrong.

“This absolutely shows that the recall reform advocates were right, that this building was not necessary,” said Tom Russell, spokesman for the CUSD Recall Committee.

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The administrative center is just one of the controversies to dog the district in recent years. Although many of the district’s 56 schools are ranked among the state’s best, other brouhahas have included an Orange County Grand Jury probe; a raid of district headquarters by the district attorney; the resignation of its longtime superintendent after accusations he kept an “enemies list”; and disputes over attendance boundaries, a high school’s location and portable classrooms.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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