Hard Knocks

Three years in the life of the Capistrano Unified School District

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.

"There were a lot of volunteers that were energized because of the things that had happened," says Christensen, who earned 46.5 percent of the votes against incumbent John Cassabianca. Christensen wasn't involved with the first recall, but the Coto de Caza engineer says he was motivated to run after years of hearing stories from other parents. "When you read the [grand jury] testimony, you see that, yes . . . these people were correct in their suspicions about the school district," says trustee Christensen.

"The children were getting a fairly decent education," he says. The problem, he says, was infrastructure. "Money started to go into things that supported the administration, and because of that, it was taken away from schools."

The administration building, he says, is a perfect example of the district's skewed priorities. "There are kids in classrooms that are 30- and 40-year-old trailers that are actually, literally falling down around them; children who are at lunch hour during the rain are eating their lunches on the bathroom floor. Things like this are intolerable for south Orange County. I mean, it's Third World."

Addonizio had never considered running. But she met recall petitioners at a grocery store one day, became involved with the campaign and eventually decided to run for a board seat.

But since the so-called "reform" trustees took office, the transition has been bumpy. "It's been uncomfortable," says Christensen.

Longtime trustee Sheila Benecke also agrees that there's tension on the new board. "A lot of it is they're inexperienced. They don't know how things work, but they think they know," she says. "They don't understand how the law makes us do something one way and not the way they thought it would make more sense."

Trustee Marlene Draper was on vacation and unavailable for comment for this story.

"What the public is looking at is the items that were done in the past that they feel were wrong—the high school, the administration building," Christensen says. "If anything is connected with them now, the votes are on a 4-3 basis to protect the previous votes.

"That's why they wanted to do the recall again," he says.

In addition to those 4-3 votes, for some parents who were not active in the first recall, the passage of the budget this past June was the final catalyst.

"They increased class size and gave administrators a 7 percent pay raise," says Casserly, who is participating in the second recall. The goal, say proponents, is to pull Benecke and Draper out of office before the next budget is voted on in 2008. According to district spokesperson Beverly De Nicola, new superintendent Woodrow Carter says he will not comment on the current recall since it involves the board and not him or his administration.

Although Fleming and McGill have both resigned, their legacies are still the subject of ongoing controversy. In May, Fleming and McGill were indicted by the Orange County district attorney's office for misappropriating taxpayer funds to defeat a ballot measure and for conspiring to commit acts injurious to the public. McGill was additionally indicted on perjury charges.

"Frankly, I've never seen anything like this," District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in May. "What we're talking about is a very complete kind of enemies list, of not just the proponents and the people who did the signature gathering, but their children." According to the indictment, Fleming used more than $1 million in district funds to have his administrators compile the lists.

Fleming and McGill are scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Friday. Fleming's defense attorney, Ron Brower, says he will be asking for the pretrial to be rescheduled because of the amount of information involved with the case. "We've got a lot of material to gather and a lot of people to talk to," Brower says, adding that he is conducting his own independent investigation. Brower estimates that the case will not go to trial until early next year. "We're going forward with the case on the basis that he's not guilty of committing any crime," Brower says.

McGill's lawyer, Kevin Gallagher, says he is filing a motion to find out specifically where the DA is alleging that McGill perjured herself. "It's so vague it's impossible for her to defend herself," he says of the perjury charge.

Gallagher says that in all his years of working homicide and other serious cases, he hasn't seen a witness treated like McGill was by prosecutors. "I've read all the transcripts in this thing. . . . They did a tag team on her and were absolutely abusive," he says. "What they did to her was an OC version of Abu Ghraib." Gallagher says McGill will stick with her not-guilty plea: "Her conduct was not criminal." What she is, he says, is "naive and very forgetful."

DA spokeswoman Schroeder says that investigations of alleged Brown Act violations by trustees, Benecke and Draper among them, are ongoing.


A big pink September sun is droppingoverthe rooftops of Newhart Middle School's rows of portable classrooms in Mission Viejo. Lines of cars scramble up the hills, with drivers looking for parking. As parents rush toward the back-to-school night gathering, they are stopped once, sometimes twice by Jennifer Beall, Michelle Russell or any of the other half-dozen volunteers gathering recall-petition signatures. Volunteers are blitzing as many back-to-school nights as possible over a two-week period; these were some of their most successful signature-gathering nights during the first recall, says Beall—who is missing her own two daughters' festivities to be here tonight. "I explained it to my daughters, and I'm meeting with their teachers tomorrow morning," she says. "I need to be out here."

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