As if to demonstrate why anyone would be interested in a movie about school districts, Capistrano Unified delivered some of its trademark drama at last night's premier of Not As Good As You Think (which we previewed here).
Capistrano Dispatch editor Jonathan Volzke apparently wasn't invited to the event -- though the Weekly and the Register were -- and he was told that space was full when he tried to register for a seat at the screening. That's strange on its own, given that Volzke's Beyond the Blackboard blog is the primary news source for anyone who wants to keep up with the district's dysfunctions and developments. Volzke's been a skeptical observer of the reform/recall movement that took over the school board in November and starred in Not As Good As You Think. You'd think he'd be at least notified about the movie.
Volzke tried to crash the thing, showing up at the St. Regis for the gala beforehand but judiciously turning down hors d'oeuvres. He says someone there offered him an extra ticket. So he went and sat down to watch the film -- only to be escorted out by a security officer who told him, "Your presence makes certain people uncomfortable."
Weird. Hoping to hear an explanation -- and wanting to hear more about the documentary screening, which I couldn't attend -- I called up recall leader and Rancho Santa Margarita city councilman Tony Beall. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. Email me with any typos... Beall said a lot, and I was typing frantically to get it all:
Tony Beall: I thought it was a great event. It was a packed house. That's the first time I had seen the final cut.
What did you take away from the movie?
I was thrilled. I was thrilled that our reform movement in Capistrano Unified was used as an example for the rest of the nation of both what's wrong with the current public education system, as well as a mechanism by which people in their communities can bring reforms to their own school. I was proud.
Did the director, Lance Izumi, find you guys for the documentary, or did you find him?
He found us. I'll never forget the day a couple years back, I was sitting at my desk at work and a guy called me out of a blue and said, I'm reading this book and you're quoted in it. I said, "What are you talking about?"
The Pacific Research Institute had, unbeknownst to us, been studying our reform movement in Capistrano Unified, and they reported it prominently in the book that the documentary is based upon. So, I ordered the book from Amazon.com because I wanted to see what it said. I read it, said, "That's great, OK," put it on my shelf, and went forward. A year later, my phone rang. It was the Pacific Research Institute. They introduced themselves, they asked me if I wanted to participate in a documentary that would bring this book to life. So, the they reached out to us.
The PRI is known to be pro-school choice and pro-vouchers. Where does the reform movement stand on those issues?
We have been very consistent that our reform movement is our mission statement, which is to restore integrity, honesty and accountability to the district. We have never been advocating any particular solution, whether it's vouchers or charter schools.
Now our efforts have shown that it's incontrovertible that there was no honesty, integrity or accountability in the district. We wanted to expose that, and we saw that the only way we could change Capistrano Unified was to put new people in positions of leadership.
That's where our focus has been. Now, I personally believe that competition is what has made America great, whether it be in business, in sports, in all aspects of life. I believe that competition tends to bring out the best that Americans have to offer. Those that are enjoying the fruits of a monopoly tend to fear competition. I want to stress, these are Tony Beall's thoughts. These are by no means the aims or motives of the reform movement. We have supporters from all over the political spectrum.
I will tell you that our detractors have tried to demonize us repeatedly, calling us names, trying to suggest we're trying to destroy public education, that we're right-wing religious whackos. That is demagoging [sic]. It has no resemblance to the facts and the truth.
There are plenty of people still out there defending James Fleming and his creation of the enemies list, and sending moles into my own home to spy. If you want to talk about scary, I find that to be scary.
What do you hope the effect of the movie to be?
This movie is making an impact nationally. Probably around 1/3 to a little less than a half of it features Capistrano Unified prominently. I think the reason is, number one, "The OC" has a national identity because of certain TV shows. It's perceived as being an affluent area, which it is, but it's also a reality that the parents value education, they're involved in education, and they're involved in the system. And we have shown that even in that microcosm, these kinds of despicable acts were occurring. And if it can happen here under the watchful eyes of people who care, it sends a message that that kind of thing is happening all over the country and billions of dollars in education dollars are being wasted to line pocketbooks. I am proud that we have helped shine a national spotlight on what is clearly a broken system.
The movie appears to focus on educational quality - test scores, teachers. Do you think Capistrano Unified delivers a poor education?
Two points on this. One: A lot of the issues we have fought hard to address, the proliferation of unsafe, unsanitary classrooms, no air conditioning -- that negatively impacts the educational experience of hundreds of kids. We want smaller class sizes, to get out of those decrepit old portables. The mismanagement of the tax dollars [referring in part to the district's newly built headquarters] - that's a question of mismanagement of priorities, so kids aren't getting the kind of books, the supplies they need to do well. So in that way, we have always been for the improvement of education. CUSD has failed miserably with respect to those sort of facility needs and mismanagement of tax dollars.
Two: I do think the facts demonstrate that the educational experience is good in the younger grades, but it drops off once you hit high schools, with less accountability and more chances for kids to drop through the cracks. Don't get me wrong. You can get an excellent, first-rate education in Capistrano Unified. But it's easy to fall through the cracks, and there are times when you have to work to get the resources that should be available to every student.
Do you have any insight as to what happened with Jonathan Volzke? I understand he wasn't invited, and was kicked out when he showed up.
I know the situation you're describing from what I heard, and what I heard is he registered after the event was already full. I don't have any information about that.
Do you feel uncomfortable about him?
No, I don't. I don't have an opinion one way or another about the man. It's a non-issue.
Seven months into a unanimous reform board, how do you feel about the district?
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I have tremendous hope for the future. And I believe that the people of South Orange County have every reason to have hope for the future.
However, it's clear from the mob scenes we have seen in the district offices, even in the very first board meeting when the new board was sworn in, that the entrenched special interests in Capistrano Unified are refusing to change, to reform, or to honor the will of the electorate. The electorate has spoken now three consecutive times in overwhelming margins demanding change and reform. Yet, what we see are the apologists of the old board fighting to keep the status quo. Those that profit off of the system, they don't want to change, they don't want to honor the will of the electorate. So with the election battle won, one battle is won but others remain. But in the end, there is no stopping reform, and that is why I'm so hopeful. The people know what they want, and slowly but surely change will come.
Keep in mind, the problems that we have to deal with in the school district were created in the Fleming regime very over many many years, and it will take many many years to put this district back together. Especially in this budget mess. CUSD lacks the funds now to make immediate positive repairs and cast a magic wand and say "poof" to fix things. It's going to take some time. Under the Fleming regime, they turned neighbors against neighbors, and it's going to take a lot of time for those wounds to be healed. And you can see that at he board meetings. It's vicious. But over time, our detractors see we have no hidden agenda. We have kids in the school district too.
We need to have a more civil dialogue. That's how mature adults deal with things. But rather than civil dialogue, the reform leaders are being accused to try and destroy public education or being secret agents for some secret right wing evangelical group. There are no facts to support that. What that does is cause the dialogue to degrade and cause progress to move very slowly.