The board room of the 2-year-old Capistrano Unified School District Education Center is big, but not big enough tonight. Hundreds of folding chairs set up in rows can’t contain the crowd of parents, teachers, kids and employees, who then fill the side aisles, press against the back wall of the room and spill out onto the sidewalk. A grumbling wells up from the more petulant-looking members of the crowd as Trustee Larry Christensen reads a prepared statement from the dais.
“We understand the frustration,” Christensen says, his voice soft and hesitant. “It’s like any animal that wants to survive. If you’re cornered with an unknown, you strike out.”
To which a woman in the mob by the door whispers, “Animal? Did he just call us animals?”
The kids, or at least the youngest ones, probably don’t catch all the references slung during the public-comments portion of the Jan. 12 school-board meeting. Galileo’s pursuit of the truth, Bill Richardson’s withdrawal from Obama’s cabinet, haggis and Lord Acton’s “absolute power corrupts absolutely” quote all come up as more than 20 constituents speak before the board. Dana Hills High School history teacher Nikki Slocum even suggests the board had taken to heart one of Joseph Stalin’s teachings: “Death solves all problems.”
Anyone who has followed the district for a while will tell youit’s not supposed to be this way. Shouting, antagonism, accusations of tyranny and threats of recall were hallmarks of the old Capistrano Unified under the reign of now-indicted superintendent James Fleming and his rubber-stamp board of trustees (see Daffodil J. Altan’s “Hard Knocks,” Oct. 5, 2007). Two traditional elections and one recall campaign saw voters endorse, by large margins, slates of “reform” candidates who pledged to clean up Fleming’s “culture of corruption.” A happier chapter was meant to begin for CUSD on Nov. 4, when voters welcomed in seven self-proclaimed reformers.
“There’s a new battle being waged in Capistrano Unified, and it is every bit as dangerous as the battle voters just won,” says district parent Tony Beall, addressing the board of trustees he helped elect as a leader of the CUSD Recall Committee. “Many who directly profit from CUSD’s multimillion-dollar budget are continuing their efforts to frustrate and roll back reforms.”
Beall, a Rancho Santa Margarita city councilman who speaks with the nasal precision of the elder George Bush, has mastered the art of political euphemism. He thinks teachers and staff are making trouble because they don’t like the board’s recent suspension of A. Woodrow Carter, the retired army colonel who has served as CUSD superintendent since September 2007. Trustees say that personnel laws prevent them from saying why they voted 6-1 behind closed doors on Jan. 6 to put the popular superintendent on paid administrative leave after hearing scores of constituents praise him. Carter’s seat at the dais at the Jan. 12 meeting is empty, and the many parents, teachers, students and district employees who say Carter was the most honest, effective, friendly and helpful superintendent they’d ever worked with (CUSD has gone through four people in the top spot since Fleming left in 2006) took the board’s vote as a troubling sign. (The Weekly’s efforts to reach Carter for comment were unsuccessful.)
“There are no words to describe your actions last week,” says Erin Kutnick, a parent from San Juan Capistrano, supporter of Carter and unsuccessful candidate for the board in November. “Any small hope that we had to finally focus on our children in this district was effectively destroyed by your vote to fire a well-respected and competent leader.”
The meeting at times feels like a grudge match. Kim McCarthy, a parent who speaks up with allegations that Carter negotiated a teachers’-union contract without board approval, says she hasn’t liked the superintendent since he publicly rebuked her in August for calling Marco Forster Middle School a “Mexican public school” (see Altan’s “School Colors,” Sept. 4). And underneath each accusation that the board is acting in the pursuit of a “political agenda” are long-simmering anxieties about the financing of the recall elections.
“I support you. I trust your decisions,” says Sharon Campbell, a parent from Mission Viejo. “I would never support someone I thought was going to destroy the schools my child sits in for six-and-a-half hours a day, year after year.”
Campbell’s words jab against rumors that the reform trustees, whose campaigns were largely financed by such conservative groups as the Education Alliance and Howard Ahmanson’s Fieldstead & Co., seek to sabotage public education from the inside out. The Education Alliance, which publicly opposes the influence of teachers’ unions, has been a point of contention for the new board’s critics. The Capistrano Unified Education Association, the local teachers’ union, endorsed trustee Christensen and current board president Ellen Addonizio when they ran in 2006; after the Education Alliance got more involved, though, the union vocally and financially backed the opponents of the “reform” slate in 2008. Posts on the website of the local chapter of the California School Employees Association (CSEA), which represents classified staff (including custodians and librarians), say Carter’s dismissal may have been part of a plan to “break the union,” a charge the trustees deny.
Teacher’s-union president Vicki Soderberg declined to comment for this story. A few days after the Jan. 12 meeting, Capistrano CSEA president Ronda Walen admits the anti-union suspicions are born more of the Education Alliance connection than of anything the trustees have said or done. Beall and other board supporters say the rhetoric from union leaders constitutes an organized campaign of “civil insurrection,” a charge Walen disputes.
“It’s kind of irritating to me that people are blaming the unions for this [outcry],” Walen says. “We have enough to do without having time to scheme and plot about what to say at the board meetings.”