Political war continues to rage in Capistrano Unified School District

For years, Capistrano Unified was the picture of a quiet, upper-middle-class, high-performing school district.

Students in the south Orange County district still do well academically, but the adults have waged a loud political war for more than half a decade. And they show no signs of stopping.

Last week, the teachers went on strike over a 10% pay cut. The school board wants to make at least part of that cut permanent; the teachers union has accepted the cut for this contract year but contends any extension should be open to negotiation.

And that’s just the latest dust-up.


On one side of the divide is the Committee to Reform CUSD, which five years ago moved to oust the old school board and superintendent — and succeeded. On the other is a new group, Parents for Local Control, and the teachers union, the Capistrano Unified Education Assn. Both accuse the current trustees of being as corrupt as the old board.

Parents for Local Control is behind the latest school board recall effort — the third in five years. The 2,300-member teachers union stayed out of the 2005 and 2008 recalls; this time, with instructors on strike after contentious contract negotiations failed, the union has thrown its support behind the ouster effort.

Meanwhile, the district continues its yearlong search for a new superintendent. A wrongful-termination case by the previous superintendent, A. Woodrow Carter, was dismissed by an Orange County Superior Court judge, and his predecessor faces trial in August on charges of misappropriating public funds.

“In some ways, it is the complete collapse of comity, or willingness of people to interact in a civilized way,” said Michael Petracca, a professor of political science at UC Irvine. “It is like you feel your only choice to make your voice heard is to bludgeon someone in the head.”


Discontent in the 52,000-student district began to surface about five years ago with a series of unpopular decisions by the then-school board and superintendent: the threatened closure of three elementary schools, construction of San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano and a $35-million administration building.

People from disparate parts of the district coalesced as the Committee to Reform CUSD and focused on recalling the district’s trustees and forcing out longtime Supt. James Fleming. The campaign was painted as a way to unseat arrogant, long-serving board members and a corrupt administration.

After recalls, elections and retirements, all seven school board seats changed hands. Fleming was indicted.

Now, two of the trustees in the new slate — Mike Winsten and Ken Lopez-Maddox — face a potential recall themselves. Parents for Local Control is working to collect the 22,000 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot the recall vote against each of them.


“Every move is out of our playbook,” Winsten, a leader of the original movement, said of his opponents’ actions. “If you compare the recall grounds, there are a lot of eerie similarities.”

Precisely, say members of Parents for Local Control.

“The new slate promised reform, transparency, openness, bringing the community together,” said Chris Korpi, a volunteer coordinator for the current recall effort.

“But they turned out to be worse than the people they replaced,” he said, pointing to “meetings held in secret, out-of-control spending … lies about their resources and intentions, general disregard for the public and education.”


Winsten and Lopez-Maddox contend the recall effort and accusations against them are “political shenanigans and distortions” by people who lost in past elections.

“We won three elections with education outsiders,” Winsten said. “And people who are part of the status quo don’t like that, and they are fighting back.”

One issue drawing the ire of those backing a recall is the Board of Trustees’ approval of $653,350 to settle lawsuits related to a blacklist created by Fleming. The payout is to seven families, many of whom contributed to the political campaigns of trustees.

“They’re basically paying off the people who paid for their election,” Korpi said.


Maddox-Lopez disputes that, saying the trustees simply followed the advice of the district’s insurance company, which will pay all but the $100,000 deductible.

Another issue is board secrecy. An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled March 16 that the school board violated the Brown Act when it failed to provide appropriate notice of a closed meeting in September 2008 to place Carter on administrative leave.

Then there are the philosophical differences. Trustees and the Committee to Reform CUSD received financial contributions from Education Alliance and a Howard Ahmanson company, both of which back social conservatives for school boards. Education Alliance supports school choice, privatization of public education and vouchers to allow parents to send children to private schools. Many parents are opposed to privatization and what they view as bringing religion into classrooms.

The rhetoric is flying on both sides. The Committee to Reform CUSD website calls the recall an effort by “selfish public union employees.” Vicki Soderburg, president of the Capistrano Unified Education Assn., calls the board “duplicitous and hypocritical.”


The main reason the union voted for the strike and threw its support behind the recall is that contract negotiations with the district are at an impasse. The district is facing a $34-million budget shortfall for the 2010-11 school year, and neither side can agree on how to close that gap.

A recent independent fact-finding report sided with how the union wanted to deal with the budget shortfall — a smaller pay cut, furlough days and modified health benefits — but the school board voted to disregard the report and impose the 10% pay cut, with much of it remaining permanent. The teachers voted to strike.

“The past board was willing to place the district in peril to appease the union,” Lopez-Maddox said. “This board is not.”

And so the battles continue in Capo Unified.


Rathi is a Times special correspondent.