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More unrest at Capo Unified

Times Staff Writer

Discord continued to brew in the beleaguered Capistrano Unified School District, with critics questioning two trustees’ motives and behavior during the most recent board meeting.

The CUSD Recall Committee criticized Trustee Marlene Draper’s May 7 vote to approve planning documents prepared by a firm led by her daughter. The committee also accused board President Sheila Benecke of violating the state open meetings law by putting off hearing five proposals to change the southern Orange County district’s policies on nepotism, conflicts of interest and other issues.

“There’s been no recognition of a mandate for reform and no intention to change their ways,” said committee spokesman Tom Russell, whose organization unsuccessfully tried to recall seven longtime trustees in 2005 but which helped elect three new trustees to office in November.

The attempted recall is just one of the controversies to dog the district. Although many of Capistrano’s 56 schools are among the state’s best, the district in recent years has endured an Orange County Grand Jury probe; a raid of district headquarters by the district attorney’s office; the resignation of its longtime superintendent after accusations that he kept an “enemies list”; and disputes over attendance boundaries, a high school’s location, portable classrooms and a costly new administration center.

Draper has been disparaged in the past for voting on items involving Culbertson, Adams & Associates. Her daughter, Shawna Schaffner, is the chief executive of the Aliso Viejo planning firm.

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Since Draper has no financial stake in the firm, an attorney for the school district repeatedly said her votes were legal.

Retired Superior Court Judge Stuart Waldrip, who conducted an investigation of district controversies, agreed but wrote in his January report that “failure of Ms. Draper to abstain on votes involving her daughter’s firm has been ill-advised (which she freely acknowledges).... I think it safe to say that she will not be voting on those matters in the future.”

At the May 7 meeting, Draper voted to approve the environmental impact report as her daughter sat in the audience.

Draper on Wednesday said she had pledged not to vote on financial matters involving her daughter’s firm and planned to abide by that promise. But the May 7 vote approved an environmental impact report that would allow an elementary school to be converted to a K-8 school.

“It did not involve any money at all,” Draper said.

Russell’s organization accused board President Benecke of wrongly deciding not to hear the five proposed policy changes despite their placement on the agenda and because members of the public had remained at the meeting until midnight to speak about them. They allege that Benecke waited until Trustee Ellen Addonizio, one of the policies’ proponents, went to the restroom before quickly skipping over the proposals.

Benecke said that because it was midnight, she asked fellow trustees if anyone objected to hearing the items at the next meeting.

No one did, she said.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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