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Assailed O.C. Schools Chief Quits

July 20, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Accused by opponents of dirty tricks and mismanagement, the superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District announced his resignation Wednesday, ending a 15-year tenure in which he oversaw academic gains and sharp growth in one of the state's top districts.

The impending departure of 63-year-old James A. Fleming, a well-regarded figure in state education circles, was met with tears by supporters and jubilation by opponents, reflecting the divisions that have racked the district.

"It's a bittersweet moment," Fleming said in an interview. "I've been superintendent of this district longer than most superintendents are ever in a position, particularly [a district] of this size. I leave with my head high, proud of the achievements that I have been part of .... It has been a pleasure."

Fleming said he initially planned to announce his resignation after the start of the coming school year but that recent controversies prompted him to move it up.

The 50,000-student south Orange County district has been boiling with controversy in recent years, notably an unsuccessful attempt to recall the seven school trustees because of allegations of fiscal mismanagement and other misconduct. More recent allegations -- that the district created an "enemies list" of people who received pro-recall e-mails, and revelations that the county registrar of voters broke state law by letting district officials view signatures on recall petitions -- have heightened the tension.

On Tuesday, Fleming for the first time acknowledged the existence of spreadsheets listing parents, teachers and others who received recall e-mails. He said the lists were part of an effort to determine whether someone had hacked into the district's computer system. On the same day, the Orange County Board of Supervisors laid the groundwork for an investigation into the voter registrar's actions.

"It is imperative that the announcement ... be issued at this time," Fleming said in a written statement. "This is an election year. Those campaigning for school board seats, both incumbents and challengers, should focus on the issues, policies, and challenges which Capistrano Unified faces, not about whether or not the superintendent should resign his position. There are too many real challenges facing our district and community, issues related to the district's foremost mission: the education of children."

Fleming, who earns $219,000 annually, will get a pension of about $80,000 a year. He told top administrators in a closed-door meeting that his long-term plans were unknown but that first he planned to help his daughter move to Argentina, to study international conflict resolution.

His last day will be determined by the board, which is scheduled to meet Aug. 14.

Fleming leaves a distinct imprint on the district, including the construction of 30 schools, strong academic gains and top state and national honors for district schools.

But even before the recall storm, Fleming's last few years were marked by controversies over the construction of a $52-million administration center and the decision to redraw high school attendance boundaries. Some said opposition to Fleming's boundary changes came from wealthy parents trying to keep their children apart from poorer Latino students.

Receptionists in the district's administration building wept after receiving Fleming's e-mailed announcement.

School board President Marlene Draper said Fleming would be missed.

"During Dr. Fleming's 15 years with the district, we have seen the academic achievement of children improve every year, by all measures. We've also built more schools than most any district in the state," she said.

But recall proponents say Fleming's resignation was only the start.

"This is a major victory, and it's one of our first major victories, yes, but we're not going to quit until we clean house," said Tom Russell, spokesman of the CUSD Recall Committee.

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Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.

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