| Sunday, June 12, 2005
Picture this: Entire Capo board
target of recall |
We've all grown accustomed to the advertisements produced
by teachers' organizations as they promote higher local or
state taxes to pay for our supposedly underfunded education
system. They feature pictures of crumbling walls, putrid
restrooms, overcrowded classrooms. The pitch: The schools need
more tax dollars.
The argument by those of us who oppose higher taxes is
harder to make. We usually don't have compelling pictures to
show. Our argument: Schools have plenty of money. The problem
- the same problem that afflicts all governments - is that
those trusted with the money often spend it foolishly. Which
is why schools should operate as a market rather than as a
government monopoly. Competition for customers - in the case
of schools, that would be the parents - tends to make an
organization spend more efficiently. But that's a debate for
The "give us more" vs. "spend it better" debate is in full
blossom in Sacramento, as the California Teachers Association
battles Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over his proposed
Locally, the debate is being waged in the Capistrano
Unified School District, where a group of parents began
collecting signatures on June 4 to recall the entire
seven-member school board. Often local school board recalls
are about educational philosophy or politics, as has been the
case, for example, in battles between liberals and
conservatives in the Orange Unified School District.
At Capo, it's different. The recall leaders I met with at
the Register recently share different political perspectives,
and I could distinguish no conservative or liberal philosophy
driving their concerns. Supporters of the current board claim
that the recall is run by special interests, but they won't
say what interests those are, and I can detect no interest
group other than a group of parents consumed by local issues,
although some of them are veterans of a past battle with the
district over a school expansion.
The recallers say they are energized by the arrogance of
power by the school superintendent and what they see as his
rubber-stamp school board; a waste of resources; inattention
to the needs of parents and students.
They argue that the district spends its money on
unnecessary things, and would be better able to meet the
well-recognized overcrowding problem if they were more focused
on education rather than on bureaucracy-building. They raise
some serious points.
The official recall notice served to each board member
says: "You are recklessly spending tens of millions of dollars
on an administration building and over $100 million for a
single high school next to a dump - while our schools are in
dire need of repair and our students are crammed into
substandard portable classrooms with non-functioning
restrooms. Your reckless deficit spending has created a
self-inflicted, multimillion-dollar budget crisis that puts
our children at risk and resulted in massive program cutbacks
- severely diminishing the quality of education."
A Register article from May 2001 about school overcrowding
paints a dismal picture of students crammed in like sardines
and bare-bones facilities. "At Capo Valley High, there is no
cafeteria, no auditorium, no nurse and no school-based police
officer," the article explains.
Capo Unified continues to absorb growth from fast-growing
south county communities, so problems cannot be pinned
entirely on the board and the administration. The district is
building a new high school in San Juan Capistrano. Its
enormous cost - now at $120 million and rising - is about
three times the average cost of new high schools across the
state, according to recall supporters, and has become a core
issue for the recall.
Meanwhile, the district is building new offices for the
superintendent and staff. Recall activists insist it has a
view of the ocean, although Board President Marlene Draper
says it does not. View or not, the beautifully designed
126,000- square-foot facility has become another recall
During the first day of signature-gathering, lines were
long, according to recall activist Jennifer Beall. "People
were livid," she said. "All we had to do we show them the
pictures of the portables compared to the beautiful new $25
million administration building."
The district said the building is needed because it's a
poor long-term investment to keep leasing space, and has
raised concerns about employee safety. "Employees continually
dodge both cars and heavy trucks on Calle Perfecto as they
traverse up and down and across a street with no sidewalks,"
said Superintendent James Fleming in an April 25 memo to board
trustees. But recall advocates wonder about the safety of
students who are crammed in classrooms and forced to traverse
overcrowded streets and parking lots.
"Our first focus always has been the schools," retorted
Draper, in a phone interview. She said the district's
investment in repairs and new building in the fast-growing
area has been "staggering."
The office will be paid for by redevelopment dollars in a
deal the district struck with the city of San Juan Capistrano,
and will not impact the district's general-fund budget, school
officials explain. That's true, although recall supporters
argue that the same money could be used to upgrade
Another key criticism by recall opponents is that the board
is nothing but a rubber stamp for a powerful superintendent -
whose $274,000 annual compensation package is the highest in
the county, according to the Register. The board has voted 7-0
or 6-0 (with one abstention) on every matter except one over
the past three years. Draper doesn't deny that, but argues
that there is plenty of debate and contention among board
"The teachers and education are good," said recall activist
Thomas Russell. "The problem is a wretched administration and
a 7-0 board of trustees that doesn't oversee them."
Recall supporters expect a new forthcoming slate to have
various views about education. "Maybe we'll have some 4-3
votes," said another activist, Kevin Murphy. "We'd actually
have a conversation."
The recall supporters don't disagree with Fleming and the
board that resources are stretched at an overcrowded school
district. And they agree that some of the support for the
recall comes from parents disgruntled by the proposed closing
of three elementary schools and the controversial new
high-school boundaries. But, ultimately, they argue that this
effort is about reforming a board that is imperious and
Draper wants to know why these longtime spending issues
weren't raised during the 2004 November regular election, when
four board members were re-elected without opposition.
The recallers have good questions of their own. Is $25
million too much for an office building? Is $120 million too
much for a new high school? Is the superintendent overpaid and
unaccountable to the public? Critics also wonder why Fleming
claims to be facing budget cuts even as his district budget
In a true market for education, we wouldn't need elections
to decide such things, but there I go on a detour again.
School board elections so frequently operate under the
radar screen that anyone interested in openness and public
debate ought to welcome this squabble. The election could come
down to the photographs - the ones comparing the portable
classrooms to the drawing of the resort-quality administration
building. For once, the pictures might benefit those who take
the "spend it better" side of the argument.
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