I've never watched a single episode of The O.C., Laguna Beach, or The Real Housewives of Orange County. And yet, through some kind of peripheral pop-culture osmosis, they managed to infect my mental image of South Orange County before I ever actually saw the place.
So when I landed in the heart of this half-fictional, half-factual landscape in an attempt to understand the story behind the story of the Capistrano Unified School District—the county's second largest, with a huge budget and in the middle of Orange County's newest and wealthiest communities—I expected to see schools that mirrored the bland opulence of the area's palm-tree-lined coastal tract housing. I've covered school districts before. Usually things match up: Inner-city schools look like the inner city, suburban schools look like the suburbs.
I studied the district and the strange stories of corruption, recalls and indictments that seemed to be oozing out of what was supposed to be (in the minds of millions of television viewers) an idyllic educational utopia.
I made some contacts. I heard some stories that just didn't sound right. Lawyers and engineers claimed their schools were at Third World levels. Money had been mismanaged, they alleged. I was told of a magnificent building perched on a hill that dwarfed even the boldest, most indulgent idea of what a district's administration building should look like. I heard about an astronomically expensive school that was situated a few thousand feet from one of the county's biggest dumps.
I needed to see this stuff for myself. Surely these people were exaggerating. My parents are from a Third World country. I have seen falling-down schools in Guatemala. And wealth has a way of skewing your standards.
On my first day of exploration, in a mere five hours, I traveled throughout the district and visited about a dozen of the district's 56 schools. Here, in the middle of pristine South County, I saw valleys of concrete lined with dozens of rickety, sometimes windowless classroom portables, nestled among hills of new homes. I saw rotting wood. I saw wide-open circuit boxes with wires hanging out of them like vines. I smelled mildew in classrooms. I saw small holes in the bottoms of some portables that hinted at animal gnawings (although I couldn't prove this for a fact).
It was strange: How had an affluent district with a half-billion-dollar budget managed to notreplace this many crappy portables with real classrooms? District officials later told me that hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent since 1990 to build 30 new schools to catch up with the district's rapid expansion and to modernize older schools. I'm not saying that did not happen; I just know what I saw that day at some of the biggest schools, and it wasn't pretty. I made my way to the majestic hilltop building, looking for some answers.
For a long time, people hadn't known what it was. Some thought it was a luxury hotel. Others thought it was a new shopping area or luxury condos. On a southern lip of Interstate 5 that juts out just before it curves down toward San Clemente, everyone can see it: a bold concrete hulk with Spanish awnings.
When all is said and done, the building could cost around $54 million (if the loans on the building are paid off early, maybe a little less). At one point in the building's very controversial history, it was discovered that part of it had been paid for with taxes that could have gone toward new classrooms.
And to be fair, I did have the chance to experience first-rate new-school building construction. On another day, I drove up a very steep, two-lane hill with no divider and protruding electric lines. I tried to ignore the county-dump signs; the lumbering dump trucks in front of my car were more difficult to ignore. At the top of this hill, there was a little road that went down, down, to one of the prettiest, newest schools I had ever seen. This, I thought, feels like South County. So what if there were signs a few hundred feet away alerting me that the dump was 1,000 feet away? This not-yet-finished school, with a price tag at just more than $150 million, was the crème de la crème of CUSD. There were no old portables on this campus (although I have been told by the district that pending new classrooms will be "modular" buildings, which is a fancy term for new portables) and plans are in store for a state-of-the-art performance theater and an Olympic-size swimming pool.
The more time I spend in CUSD, the more I realize the topography of its network of campuses is not so out of line with what's going on at district headquarters. The place where schools are so different (and some would say, inequitably so) from one another that you'd think you were in two separate districts is also the place where administrators are indicted (ex-superintendent James Fleming and ex-assistant superintendent Susan McGill), the Brown Act is violated, test scores are sky-high, board members are recalled and students sue their teachers-a factual landscape that is too good to be duplicated in fiction.