Hard Knocks

Three years in the life of the Capistrano Unified School District

Murphy was stunned. Had his wife been lied to? Why hadn't the board of trustees questioned the district? Why would the district spend millions on a new building when the money could be used to fix his son's school's leaky roof or replace hundreds of aging portables crowding many of the district's schools?

He met directly with the superintendent for breakfast one fall morning in 2004. "He talked for most of the hour and basically said that I didn't understand school finances," he says. "Halfway through the meeting, I told him what I do for a living and that I do understand what I'm doing and that someone is lying to me." According to Murphy, the conversation then turned sour. "He basically said, 'Even if you've done this research, what are you going to do about it?' I stood up and said, 'You know what? You're fucking with the wrong Irishman,' and I walked out."

Murphy says he met with every trustee regarding the funding of the building and got nowhere. "They had no idea what I was talking about," he says. His next move was a bold, if admittedly naive, one, he says now with hindsight.

"We'd just come off the recall of Governor Gray Davis, and I thought, why not do the same here? I had no idea what I was in for or how difficult it would all be." He typed up a short note and circulated it at the next district board meeting. Anyone interested in getting involved in the recall of the district trustees was asked to include their e-mail address.

He was in luck. That night, parents angry over the district's redrawing of school boundaries had shown up in droves. "I must have gotten 50 names and e-mails that night," he says. "The boundary issue wasn't my issue, was never my issue, but people were angry enough over different things that they signed."

In attendance that night were Jennifer Beall and Tom Russell, also frustrated with the district for different reasons. "I had already lived almost three years with these lies," says Beall, who, with other Rancho Santa Margarita parents, had spent months fighting the district's expansion of an elementary school. After doing their own research into the district's decision, they discovered that the $16 million expansion of the school was being paid for by a 1999 bond measure, which was promised for the repair of other district schools and which Rancho Santa Margarita residents weren't even paying into.

"Really what drove us to the recall wasn't that they built the school, but the process that got us there," says Beall.

The future recall-committee leader says she had no problems with the district and the board until she began to interact with them. "I went to the meeting. I prepared a statement. I did what I was supposed to do," she says. But after a few meetings at which she voiced her concerns over the district's plan to build a high school in an office-park building, as well as the plan to expand the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade elementary school to a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade, things changed. She was voted off the board of Education for the Children, a nonprofit group that raised money for class-size reduction, which she had sat on for three years. "I was actually told to be quiet" by volunteers, she says. But, she says, she hit her boiling point when she first introduced herself to James Fleming.

"He put his hand out and then pulled it back," she says. According to Beall, he then said, "Let me tell you the three mistakes you've made." Someone else walked up, and she walked away before he got to the second mistake (the first was her involvement with Brad and Kathy Goff, vocal residents who didn't have children in the district). "He never shook my hand. After that, there was no going back."

The night he collected the signatures, Murphy went home and sent an e-mail to the 50 on his list and others he thought might be interested. Within a couple of days, he had received about 400 responses, he says.

In a few weeks, a group from far-flung corners of South County had gathered for their first meeting. They found their stories intersected on various levels. After years of trying to work with the district and the board over specific issues in their communities (residents in San Juan Capistrano were questioning the building of an overpriced school near a county dump; in Rancho Santa Margarita, residents were fighting a costly school expansion; Mission Viejo residents were trying to find out why their tax dollars had not been spent on their crumbling schools), many found that they had been stonewalled, intimidated or ignored.

Members of the group raised questions about a $65 million bond measure passed in 1999 that was meant to address some of the schools with the poorest conditions (no cafeterias, hundreds of leaky, crumbling, portable classrooms) and where that money had gone. It was later discovered that big chunks of the money were spent on the elementary-school expansion and the new high school by the dump (see "Surreal Estate," Sept. 14).

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