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Unity Hard to Come By in Capistrano Unified

A district that produces top scholars clashes over school boundaries and closures, administration offices, a recall effort -- now an `enemies list.'

July 30, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

In the Capistrano Unified School District, students routinely rank among the state's best, acing standardized tests and beating a well-worn path to top universities.

But outside the classroom, the district's school board and administrators have been waylaid by a string of controversies, many triggered by a battle with activist parents, that often make the institution look like an ill-behaved kindergarten class.

All seven trustees were the targets of an unsuccessful recall campaign, the veteran superintendent decided to step down, and allegations of wrongdoing launched an investigation by county prosecutors.

A new $35-million administration building and redrawn boundaries that will bring students from wealthy beach areas into a new high school with students from poorer families are just two of the controversies that have led to cross-charges of financial malfeasance and cul-de-sac bigotry.

"I have been involved in the district for many years and ... I've never seen it like this," said Patricia Kelley, a Mission Viejo city councilwoman who served as Parent Teacher Student Assn. president at three schools. "A lot of pressure has been building and a lot of discontent over the state of the school district."

Supt. James A. Fleming, 63, who announced his resignation this month after a 15-year tenure, said it was a shame to see the district's classroom accomplishments clouded by the turmoil. Fleming said he moved up his planned retirement because of the "hysteria" over allegations that he kept an "enemies list" of recall supporters.

"We're a great school district.... To have all this silliness occurring is so sad," he said. "It's a hell of a way to wrap up an otherwise distinguished career."

The 10th-largest school district in the state, Capistrano Unified has an annual budget of $578 million and academically tops every other district of similar size.

The district serves more than 50,000 students in a 195-square-mile swath of south Orange County that encompasses seven cities as well as unincorporated communities, including Ladera Ranch, where the median home price is $720,000. More than two-thirds of the students are white; 18% are Latino.

The district is blessed by its demographics. It includes a high concentration of high-income, involved parents, which tends to correlate with strong academic achievement. Nearly 99% of the district's seniors graduated in the 2004-05 school year, compared with nearly 85% statewide, state figures show.

Parents have the will, time and money to ensure the best for their children's education: In recent years, their tireless fund-raising brought in millions of dollars to ensure that third-grade class size did not exceed 20 pupils.

And those same qualities have come into play when parents clash with the Board of Trustees, which almost always votes unanimously.

In recent years, parents have protested the near-closure of three elementary schools in Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano and Aliso Viejo; the conversion of an elementary school into a K-8 in Rancho Santa Margarita; and the construction of and boundaries for San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, a $130-million school opening in fall 2007 that will draw some students from predominantly white, upper-class neighborhoods and others, many of them Latino, from working-class neighborhoods.

These controversies resulted in parents from disparate parts of the district coalescing in the spring of 2005 and focusing their efforts on a common goal: recalling the district's seven trustees and forcing the departure of its long-time superintendent.

"The problem was, we were fighting our battles in isolation," said L. Anthony "Tony" Beall, a Rancho Santa Margarita city councilman and recall supporter. But last year, "a critical mass was finally coming together."

In June 2005, parents with recall petitions began gathering signatures outside grocery and hardware stores, back-to-school nights and elsewhere.

At the same time, recall proponents grew increasingly critical of the board's decision to build a $35-million administration building while hundreds of classes were being held in aging portables. The administration center, an airy Mission-style building with expansive picture windows just east of Interstate 5 that opened in June, replaced a collection of ramshackle buildings, warehouses and rental units.

"It made all the sense in the world from a business standpoint to have all operations under one roof," Fleming said.

But recall supporters said that the project, funded by future redevelopment dollars and homeowners' Mello-Roos assessments, used up funds that should have been spent on school improvements. "The ripple effect of that beauty project is tragic," said Tom Russell, spokesman for the CUSD Recall Committee.

Trustees Sheila J. Benecke and Mike Darnold said the controversy over the administration building was a cover for the recall proponents' real concerns: the redrawing of high school boundaries and its racial implications.

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