Hard Knocks

Three years in the life of the Capistrano Unified School District

By compiling their own paper trail, the group became a kind of district watchdog, exposing things for parents through their website and press releases such as the conflict of interest for Marlene Draper and her daughter, who is the vice president of the firm that does a bulk of the district's environmental-impact reports, or the way they believe money has been egregiously mismanaged by the district.

Many of the concerns raised by the group during the first recall were later backed up by dozens of documents acquired through public-records requests by the recall group and other parents not involved with the recall, but who were fed up with conflicting stories they were getting from the district.

"Parents have been asking for the truth around those Mello-Roos funds for a long time, and they just didn't know who to ask," says one Mission Viejo mom, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of district retaliation. She and other parents tried for several years to find out how their money from the special property tax known as Mello-Roos, which was established in 1982 to fund schools and other facilities in new communities, was being spent. The money pot at the time for Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo was around $100 million, but no one knew exactly how it was being spent.

"We thought, well, what's happening? Our schools are in terrible condition. Where's the money going to?" says the Mission Viejo mom. Her children were attending Newhart Middle School; when she visited, she found an overcrowded school with rows and rows of dilapidated portables. This was just after the district had initiated construction of the new high school and the lavish administration building.

"We were told by the administration that we were too negative. That we should be thankful for what we had—and that made us really angry."

She and other parents—who were not directly involved with the recall at the time—formed a modernization group, drafted a report, and snapped pictures of the decrepit, crowded portable classrooms and posted them online. "When that got around, it became part of the ammunition for the recall because people did not know that they had schools in their community like this. People lived in million-dollar houses, they drove their fancy BMWs and Mercedeses, dropping their kids off at school—and the kids were going to a school that was a trailer park and a pit."

She and other parents never imagined, however, that money from the Mello-Roos taxes was being spent on the district's brand-new administration building. Not until November 2005 did parents finally learn, through an Orange County Register article, that $11 million in Mello-Roos funds from Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo had gone toward the construction. (The figure is now at $13 million.)

Past estimates have put the cost of the building at $52 million, a figure that also included interest on loans. According to the district, the cost of the building thus far is $36.4 million. With interest, the total cost is now estimated at $53.4 million. Chief Financial Officer Sherri Hahn says the district hopes to pay the loans off sooner in order to bring the total cost down.

Recall members also discovered, through records requests, that facilities director David Doomey did not see plans for the building before approving funding for it and that the contract was a no-bid deal. Doomey did not publicly admit that the district had misled the public about the funding of the building until a full year later, in 2006.

"I did not know how the administration building was being funded at the time," says trustee Sheila Benecke. But, she adds, "The use of Mello-Roos dollars for district-support facilities is perfectly legal."

The circulation of the portables pictures generated more interest in the recall and prompted CUSD to begin some improvements. However, 25 percent of the district's 2,290 classrooms are currently portables.

Parents and teachers nervous about being affiliated with the group signed petitions at home. In October 2005, the group submitted more than 175,000 signatures to county Registrar Neal Kelly. "We had never really thought about what we would do if we didn't make it," says Murphy. "We had been told by the registrar if we were 10 percent over, we were fine." The group submitted a little more than 25,000 signatures per trustee, well more than the required 20,421 per person. "We weren't worried," says Murphy.

On Dec. 22, 2005, the registrar announced that thousands of signatures had been invalidated and that, as a result, the rest didn't reach the minimum needed for a recall election. "I was shocked and extremely deflated," Murphy says.

A couple of weeks later, on Jan. 4, a group of committee members went to the registrar's office to inspect the petitions that had been invalidated. Jennifer Beall and a group of volunteers began an exhaustive recount and research effort, discovering that 3,000 of the 8,000 signatures rejected for Sheila Benecke were done so erroneously.

Unbeknownst to the recall committee, district officials also made a visit to the registrar's office in early January. On Jan. 6, then-Assistant Superintendent Susan McGill and Director of Communications David Smollar went there at the superintendent's request to look at the same recall petitions—acts that were illegal, and for which Kelly, the county registrar, later apologized. During the course of a couple of hours, according to Smollar's testimony in a separate case, he and McGill gathered the names of a few dozen people whose names showed up repeatedly as petition gatherers on the petitions.

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