Hard Knocks

Three years in the life of the Capistrano Unified School District

The vast, glittering meeting room at Capistrano Unified School District's shiny new headquarters is crowded this evening. It's Monday night, the first week of school, and tonight's board of trustees meeting is the first for the new interim superintendent, Woodrow Carter. He's the third person to fill the slot in the past year.

The meeting begins with that staple of school-board gatherings across the nation, a syrupy video presentation about kindergarteners. Audience members chuckle at the squirmy kids on the two giant screens.

But many in the room aren't laughing. Some watch with their lips pursed. Others shake their heads. Glances are exchanged across rows of chairs; the video does little to mask the tension that hangs in the room like a heaving storm cloud.

During the public speaking session, a bit of that storm erupts. After a few praises and minor complaints, one parent stands up, then a PTA president, then another parent, all with biting comments for the board.

When the final parent comes up to the podium, it's difficult to make out what he's saying. The microphone volume is suddenly lower. Parents crane their necks to hear; many probably miss his cryptic opening line: "My name is Tom Russell. My child is on the CUSD enemies list. So is my wife, and so am I."

For Russell, as well as the other vocal parents gathered in the room tonight, the "enemies list" was the culmination of what many felt were years of intimidation, lying, mismanagement of tax dollars and neglect by Capistrano Unified's former superintendent, James Fleming, his administration and the trustees who were supposed to keep him in check.

"CUSD does have all the ingredients for a good school district—except one," Russell says to the new superintendent. "Unfortunately, the CUSD board lacks a majority with honesty, integrity and accountability. This is why we attempted to recall the Fleming-era trustees in 2005, and why we have been compelled to commence another recall, just recently."

He looks at two of the board's longest-serving trustees: president Sheila Benecke and former president Marlene Draper. Both are the subjects of the latest recall effort by a broad coalition of South County parents and residents. "They have permitted a culture of corruption to infect our school district," he says.

Russell, whose taut face and big eyes are framed by a swell of thick gray hair, thanks the new superintendent for his interest in the district—after all, two previous interim school chiefs have already come and gone. But his voice climbs (despite the microphone problems) to make a few other points, among them the allegation that the board and the district have repeatedly engaged in illegal closed-session meetings and that they have recklessly spent $52 million on the new administration building everyone is sitting in tonight, while kids in the district still languish in "substandard portable classrooms."

The 51,000-student Capistrano Unified looks good on paper: high test scores, affluent neighborhoods, high graduation rates and a half-billion-dollar yearly budget. But Tom Russell is no solitary disgruntled gadfly. The father of three is the ardent spokesperson for the CUSD Recall Committee, a group that has mushroomed over the past two years into a bipartisan, grassroots movement now hundreds strong. Some would argue the movement is directly responsible for some of the major changes—and disturbing revelations—that have come about in the district.

The district's response to this movement, meanwhile, has led to criminal charges. Fleming is set to go on trial on charges that he misappropriated district funds to engage in illegal political activity against district parents; he faces jail time if convicted. Ex-assistant superintendent Susan McGill faces five years in jail if convicted of perjury. And district attorney's office investigations into secret meetings by the so-called "Fleming-era" trustees, four of whom still sit on the board, are ongoing.

Larry Christensen, an engineer and newly elected trustee, describes life on the CUSD dais like this: "It's tense up there."

*     *     *

Kevin Murphy considers himself a pretty regular dad. He's the president of his son's Little League and coaches football. A few years ago, he says, he was paying little attention to what was going on in the district. "We were one of the insider families," he says. His wife was an active PTA president, and his four sons were earning great grades. He had a second-grader at the time, and one day he stopped by his son's classroom at Ambuehl Elementary on a rainy day to pick him up. He saw buckets and leaky ceilings. The more he looked into conditions at his kids' schools, the more substandard conditions he found. "This is a district surrounded by million-dollar homes," he says. "It didn't add up."

One night, his wife came home after a PTA meeting at which Fleming had spoken. The then-superintendent told the group of parents that the district had plans for a new administration building that would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million. His wife, Jen, was told the money from the state could only be used toward new construction.

"Originally, my ire was at the state: How could they do that?" Murphy says, given the state of disrepair that many of the campuses were in. He decided to do some research, using his financial analyst's skills. After looking through thousands of district documents, "I learned from their own website that the money could be used for anything," he says.

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