Hard Knocks

Three years in the life of the Capistrano Unified School District

McGill then allegedly gave her secretary, Barbara Thacker, a list that contained 24 names. McGill's note read: "The following names were listed as petition-gatherers on dozens and dozens of signature petitions, accounting for as many as 90 percent of the petitions submitted to the Registrar." A second list was compiled, with two dozen more names of petition gatherers who appeared on "10 or fewer petitions." McGill then instructed her secretary to create databases containing the names, spouse's names, children's names, children's schools, children's grades, addresses, cities, ZIP codes, and phone numbers for both sets of lists. In a memo submitted to the superintendent on Jan. 12, McGill states, "Per your request, attached are the lists of individuals who were listed as petition signature-gatherers along with information on whether they have children in CUSD and which schools those children attend. I am available to answer any questions you may have."

Oblivious to these acts, the recall group were focused on their registrar report regarding the rejected signatures. Around this time, Murphy, who had launched the recall, says he was exhausted and wanted to get back to spending more time with his family, so he resigned as head of the group. There were also, he says, differences of opinion "about which direction we should go in."

Murphy and some of the people in his group decided to go forward with a lawsuit against the registrar's office (now on appeal) and CUSD (subsequently dismissed), while the Beall-Russell group, which now heads the official "CUSD Recall Committee," decided to focus their attention on electing three new trustees to the seats that were due to open up in November 2006.

"A lot of people ask me if I think it failed," says Murphy of the first recall. "And I say, no. We brought all these issues out to the front, and I don't think they'd ever been looked at before. . . . I probably voted for Marlene and Mike [Darnold] before without doing any research."

"The recall made everyone operating on their own little island realize that we were not an island," says one parent who was too nervous to participate in the first recall, but has since become active in the second recall.

"It raised the awareness about these issues throughout the county and made us feel like we weren't isolated anymore," says Barbara Casserly. "We realized, wow, this is going on everywhere, and it's not just happening to us."

Casserly, who for years has been active in the district through the PTA, was not directly involved in the first recall effort, but she did sign a petition at home. "I didn't speak for years, out of fear," says Casserly, who once lobbied for money for the district in Sacramento, but was warned by other PTA members not to ask around about district spending. "The PTA made us very nervous about talking to the press. That intimidation really did work." Instead, she says, she stayed in the system, became a PTA president and kept her mouth shut.

She says she followed the district culture, which was to talk behind-the-scenes and to never publicly criticize the school district. "I wasn't treated bad because I was in the closet. They didn't know publicly where I stood."

Casserly says the breaking point for her was later that year, in July 2006, when the Register broke the story on the political "enemies lists" compiled by Fleming. "When I learned that McGill had traveled to the registrar's office to look at petitions in January 2006, I felt betrayed," she says. "Parents, teachers were already so nervous about signing the petition, how could they go down there and do that?"

After the news broke about the political "enemies" lists, the superintendent repeatedly denied having any knowledge of the lists or that his office had generated them. Parents were outraged, demanding to know how this had happened. Members of several South County city councils called for Fleming's resignation or termination.

"It's one thing to come after me since I came after you. I'm fine with that," says Murphy, whose name was on the lists. "But there's no reason to go after my kids." Less than a week after the story broke, Fleming announced his resignation but gave no specific date. At the end of the month, during a Saturday board meeting about the hiring of a new superintendent, the board voted to hire an independent investigator to look into the issue of the lists and other allegations made by parents at the time.

By this time, a county district attorney's office investigation was already under way—and had been since February. "We had received a bunch of citizen complaints from different sources," says Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for the DA's office, regarding the initiation of the investigation.

On Aug. 14, 2006, DA investigators raided the district office, seizing Fleming's computer and other district computers and files. That night, he was given a standing ovation during his resignation and farewell speech at the district board meeting. A few days later, the DA began what would turn out to be a year's worth of grand jury witness interviews with 14 district administrators and employees.

In November 2006, the CUSD Recall Committee succeeded in helping to elect the three candidates they had endorsed to the board. The candidates ran as part of the "ABC" slate: Ellen Addonizio, Anna Bryson and Larry Christensen.

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