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Capistrano school board accused of violating open-meeting law

Board members discussed reinstating furlough days and raising salaries during closed meetings, Orange County prosecutor says.

May 07, 2011|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times

An Orange County school district that for years has been embroiled in scandal and controversy is under scrutiny again, this time by county prosecutors who contend that school board members illegally discussed raising teachers' salaries and restoring furlough days in a closed-door meeting.

Board members in the Capistrano Unified School District also allegedly violated California's open-meeting laws by discussing school business during a break in a public meeting, according to a notice of violation from the Orange County district attorney's office.

The state's open-meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, requires public agencies to act and deliberate openly and to give the public proper notice of their meetings.

The school district, which serves 51,000 students from some of south Orange County's wealthiest communities, has had its share of turmoil in recent years — recall elections, a superintendent accused of keeping "an enemies list" and board members scolded for having trouble following the state's open-meeting law.

Former Supt. James Fleming on Friday was cleared of the last charge from his arrest on allegations of conspiracy, misappropriating public funds and using money to influence an election — a decision that arrived as the latest controversy was unfolding.

Prosecutors said the school district has the choice of either admitting to the open-meeting violations and agreeing to correct the issues or facing legal action, said Bill Feccia, the senior assistant district attorney.

The district attorney cited the pattern of alleged violations as emulating "the unlawful practices of a past board."

Marcus E. Walton, the district spokesman, said he could not comment on what action the district will take.

"Our attorneys have not had an opportunity to review the letter, but under the new district leadership it's been our practice to cure and correct any alleged violations," Walton said.

In October 2007, the district attorney's office issued a highly critical report accusing the school district of violating the Brown Act by discussing, in private, topics such as construction contracts and preparing parents for bad news about schools, all matters that should have been discussed in public.

The board accepted the findings and, in a separate lawsuit filed by a local resident, agreed to provide training to trustees and to record all closed-door meetings for a year.

In the latest rebuke, the district attorney is accusing board members of discussing topics such as reinstating furlough days during a closed meeting in December that the agenda labeled "Public Employee Performance Evaluation." According to the letter, in a January meeting, the board reinstated teachers' salaries under another closed item labeled "Conference With Labor Negotiators."

The board also held a meeting on March 16 in which it conferred about an issue during a recess, the letter stated.

In the salary meeting, the board not only failed to report the agenda item as the law requires, but the published minutes stated that no action had been taken, according to the letter.

Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it appears that when the Capistrano school board deals with politically sensitive issues, it takes an aggressive interpretation of the Brown Act.

"You can't hold them accountable if they are doing it in secret," he said.

Scheer said telling politicians, like a school board member, that they cannot go behind closed doors and work out a detail goes against their nature.

"It's like trying to tell someone who is addicted to gambling that they can't play cards anymore," he said.

"The trustees are going to have to put on their thinking caps on where they want to go with this," Feccia said. "It's a new board so our view is we will give them a chance."

Vicki Soderberg, the president of the Capistrano Unified Education Assn., had no comment.

Scheer added that he thinks the district attorney has been easy on the district but added that with limited resources, the office is strapped.

"While this is not a trivial matter, it's not violent criminal activity," he said.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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