Hard Knocks

Three years in the life of the Capistrano Unified School District

They asked about the spending of a special tax paid by homeowners in planned communities that was supposed to be spent on schools. Later, it was revealed that $32 million of that money was put toward the building and loan repayment of the massive, resort-like administration building. Although the action wasn't illegal, parents couldn't understand why the building had not been discussed in board meetings or why the money hadn't been used fix some of the most crowded schools.

"I was observing a complete lack of true independent inquisitiveness on their part," says Mike Winsten, a San Juan Capistrano parent long frustrated with the board. "It really seemed when there was a discussion on some of these issues, they were just reading a script."

It was decided at a second meeting that the group would launch an unprecedented recall of all seven of the trustees. Although it was the administration's actions the group was questioning, many suspected that a long history of 7-0 votes by the trustees meant they were being unduly influenced by Superintendent Fleming. A core group of eight members—Tom Russell, Kevin Murphy, Jennifer Beall and Tom Winsten among them—was elected to coordinate the campaign.

What the group didn't know at that second meeting—which was held at the home of Jennifer Beall and her husband, Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Tony Beall—was that someone there was taking notes. Those notes would later become the subject of a confidential memo sent from Fleming to Marlene Draper, then-president of the CUSD board, and the rest of the trustees, according to district documents and grand jury testimony. In the memo, titled "Report on Presumed 'Recall' Effort," Fleming says he did not actively seek out the "insider."

The Bealls say they remember becoming suspicious during the meeting. Included in the memo are their names, as well as others', and a note from the mole: "As can be seen, all of the above individuals are either SJHHS [San Juan Hills High School] or Arroyo Vista K-8 NIMBYs who are, no doubt, hoping to make inroads with some in the district who may be unhappy about the final attendance boundary decision."

At the time, the group also didn't know that its e-mail blast had made it to the superintendent's office. What happened next would later become the subject of much controversy. According to grand jury testimony by Fleming's former personal secretary, Kate McIntyre, at Fleming's request, she had the IT department create a database of all the names on the e-mail, what city they were in and if they were connected to any school in the district. She said they requested the spreadsheet to find out how certain district e-mails had wound up on the e-mail blast. This was prompted, she said, after five or so parents from PTA Council had called wanting to know why they had received Murphy's e-mail.

In her testimony, McIntyre said they never contacted Murphy directly to find out where he got the e-mail addresses. She also says she and the superintendent requested the database to "find out if they were parents in our district. If they lived in San Juan, if they lived in Arroyo Vista, Aliso Viejo, so we can find out where they had people unhappy with us."

After the IT department supplied the database, according to McIntyre, she sat down with the superintendent, and they made notes on the names on the list—adding code letters next to them to indicate where they were from. "These were each areas where we had people upset with us for different reasons," she said in her testimony. This list would not surface publicly until more than a year later.

By mid-2005, a massive recall campaign was underway; the group had embarked on the daunting task of collecting more than 20,000 signatures per trustee during a six-month period. In every district area, Jennifer Beall coordinated team volunteers, who then coordinated their own volunteers. They went door-to-door, stood outside schools during back-to-school nights and set up tables at grocery stores.

The group was met with sneers by those in the district who felt they had a right-wing agenda (referring to the members of the group angry over the boundary issues) or that they were a bunch of NIMBYs with too much time on their hands. "People would come up to me and say I hated children," says Kathy Goff, a petition gatherer with a frank, brash approach who has been involved in the recall effort with her husband, Brad, since the beginning.

Trustee Sheila Benecke, one of the two board members who are being targeted for recall a second time, maintains that the group's anger stems from the district's redrawing of boundaries. "I look at it as a political ploy of the recall leaders to attempt to cause chaos and notoriety, to defund the school district and the students of the school district," she says.

The group carved out a clear, simple message and put it on T-shirts, business cards, banners, posters, and on their document- and picture-heavy comprehensive website. It wasn't hard to get parents to listen once volunteers shared with them photos of moldy portable classrooms with rat droppings and rotting wood at Newhart Middle School in Mission Viejo, and then compared those with pictures of the palatial administration building—which detractors dubbed "the Taj Mahal"—that was under construction and plainly visible from Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano.

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