For the fourth time in a year, the district attorney's office has rebuked a politically frayed south Orange County school district for violating the state's open meeting law -- this time for awarding a pay raise to its superintendent during a closed-door meeting.
The Orange County district attorney's office said it would not pursue sanctions against the Capistrano Unified School District, which has some of Southern California's most acclaimed schools, because the board later rescinded his contract and the district is having financial difficulties.
In the Sept. 2 report, which was made public Tuesday, prosecutors said they had considered taking legal action against the school board because it seemed "incapable or unwilling" to follow the law. But the district's financial shape and the fact that voters swept two school board members from office in a June recall weighed against it.
Thomas Russell, a spokesman for the recall group, said the district attorney's report lavished praise on the school district's new board majority, which was formed in the wake of the recent election.
"The reform trustees have done a tremendous public service by exposing the ongoing corruption -- which is why they were elected and given a mandate for change," Russell said.
But Sheila Benecke, one of the board members who was removed from office in the recall election, said the district attorney's investigation seemed filled with innuendo and misstatement.
"Very clearly, political pressure has been put on the district attorney and he is responding accordingly," she said. "It's nice not to have to be dealing with this stuff anymore."
School board member Mike Darnold, who says he won't seek reelection in November, said the investigation seemed redundant and that he has faith that the community will finally end the divisiveness that has plagued the district.
The district has been swamped by controversy and political turmoil in recent years. There have been investigations, recall elections and even a superintendent indicted on suspicion of misusing public funds.
"The life cycle for outrage is normally pretty short," said Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine political science professor. But in Capistrano Unified "the hits just keep on coming. In Orange County, they've certainly moved to the top of the class in terms of conflict."
The latest investigation by the district attorney focused on a Feb. 25 meeting at which trustees met in closed session, voted to award a $58,000 raise to Supt. A. Woodrow Carter and then failed to disclose their decision in a public meeting.
In addition, Carter signed a contract that provided him with $400,000 in severance pay if the board fired him, even though the board did not discuss such a benefit in public, Assistant Dist. Atty. William Feccia concluded. Rather, the severance clause "appeared" on the contract without the board's approval, Feccia said.
Capistrano schools' trustees rescinded Carter's contract June 2 after a public outcry about the way it was awarded and then reissued the contract to him at a public meeting. The controversy came one year after the district's former superintendent was indicted on charges of misusing public funds.
A tape recording of the closed-door Feb. 25 meeting revealed "a disturbing disdain, if not outright contempt, on the part of some members of the [board] for public opinion and their own constituents," Feccia wrote.
But the report expresses confidence that newly elected board members seem committed to reform.
Academic quality in the district's 56 schools is largely acclaimed. Serving a 195-square-mile swath of southern Orange County, the district is blessed by its demographics -- a high concentration of high-income, involved parents, which often correlates with strong academic achievement.
Earlier this year, for instance, parents raised $1 million to stop teacher layoffs prompted by the state budget shortfall. Those same qualities were evident when parents clashed with the district's seven longtime trustees, dubbed the "old guard," who for many years almost always voted unanimously.
The troubles began four years ago, when parents protested the threatened closure of three elementary schools, the conversion of a primary school into a K-8 and the construction of San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, a $130-million campus that opened last fall and drew students both from predominantly white, upper-income neighborhoods and from poorer, mainly Latino areas.
Parents from disparate parts of the district coalesced in 2005 and focused their efforts on recalling the district's trustees and forcing the departure of its longtime superintendent, James Fleming.
At the same time, they grew increasingly critical of board plans for a $35-million administration building while hundreds of classes were being held in aging trailers.
Within weeks of the center's opening, Fleming resigned and the complex was raided by investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office, who issued subpoenas and seized documents and computers. The next year, Fleming and another administrator were indicted by a grand jury on charges of misusing public funds for political purposes. They are awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, though the recall attempt failed, its organizers ran three candidates who handily won board seats in the November 2006 election.
Controversy continued, including a scathing October report by the district attorney's office that the "old guard" trustees routinely violated the state's open-meeting law. A well-regarded local superintendent signed on to replace Fleming, but the ongoing dispute reportedly so unnerved him that he resigned before he was to start the job.
Then in June, two longtime trustees were swept from office.