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Foes seek recall of two Capo trustees

Group says it has enough names to put measure on the ballot.

January 23, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Critics of the Capistrano Unified school board said Tuesday that they had collected enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot to oust two trustees.

More than 62,000 signatures are on petitions to recall Marlene Draper and Sheila Benecke. The committee needs to submit about 41,000 signatures -- just over 20,000 per trustee -- to the Orange County registrar of voters by Tuesday to hold a recall election.

It's the second recall attempt against them since 2005. Critics say the two were members of the board's "old guard," which was accused of violating open-meeting laws by discussing in closed session construction contracts and how to silence a district critic.

"Trustee Benecke, Trustee Draper: Resign or face certain recall," Tony Beall, a Rancho Santa Margarita councilman and member of the CUSD Recall Committee, said at a news conference outside the district's new administration building -- the construction of which is another point of contention. "These people have created a culture of corruption in our school district and have engaged in gross financial mismanagement."

Tuesday's announcement was the latest incident in a string of controversies to beset the district. Last year, former Supt. James A. Fleming was indicted on felony charges of misappropriating public funds, conspiracy, using district money to influence an election and creating an enemies list. Former Assistant Supt. Susan McGill was charged with conspiracy and perjury in the same case. They pleaded not guilty in July. A trial date has not been set.

Most of the district's 56 schools are high performing, but critics have loudly protested the location of a new high school, opposed attendance boundary changes and fought construction of the $35-million administration complex while hundreds of classes were being held in aging portables.

Trustees routinely violated open-meeting laws by discussing in secret such topics as the construction contracts, how to silence a critic and ways to prepare parents for bad news about schools, all of which should have been debated in public, according to an October report by the Orange County district attorney.

Draper and Benecke were on the board at the time of the alleged violations.

Critics tried to recall all seven trustees in 2005 but didn't collect enough signatures. But they succeeded in electing three opposition candidates to the school board in 2006.

Benecke said she had no intention of stepping down and accused the recall group of trying to take over the board and fill it with "people who want to see their way and their viewpoints blindly enacted."

"They are needlessly wasting precious classroom dollars to undo what the voters decided to do when I was elected to office," she said. "I will fulfill my commitment to voters and to the children of this school district."

Draper, who also said she would not resign, said she had no plans to run for reelection when her term is up in November. Benecke said she had not decided whether to run again.

They both questioned why their critics were trying to force a recall vote just months before the November election.

"If they are asking me to resign because of the expense, they are very disingenuous," Draper said. "If a special election is called, they are the ones wasting the tax dollars."

A special election could cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time it is anticipating a $28-million budget shortfall for next school year.

The district made $13 million in cuts this year, and $7.5 million of next year's cuts were planned before the governor announced billions of dollars in cuts to public schools earlier this month, said district spokeswoman Beverly de Nicola.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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