Three years in the life of the Capistrano Unified School District
By Daffodil J. Altan
Thursday, October 4, 2007 – 3:00 pm
The vast, glittering meeting room at Capistrano Unified School District’s shiny new headquarters is crowded this evening. It’s Monday night, the first week of school, and tonight’s board of trustees meeting is the first for the new interim superintendent, Woodrow Carter. He’s the third person to fill the slot in the past year.
The meeting begins with that staple of school-board gatherings across the nation, a syrupy video presentation about kindergarteners. Audience members chuckle at the squirmy kids on the two giant screens.
But many in the room aren’t laughing. Some watch with their lips pursed. Others shake their heads. Glances are exchanged across rows of chairs; the video does little to mask the tension that hangs in the room like a heaving storm cloud.
During the public speaking session, a bit of that storm erupts. After a few praises and minor complaints, one parent stands up, then a PTA president, then another parent, all with biting comments for the board.
When the final parent comes up to the podium, it’s difficult to make out what he’s saying. The microphone volume is suddenly lower. Parents crane their necks to hear; many probably miss his cryptic opening line: “My name is Tom Russell. My child is on the CUSD enemies list. So is my wife, and so am I.”
For Russell, as well as the other vocal parents gathered in the room tonight, the “enemies list” was the culmination of what many felt were years of intimidation, lying, mismanagement of tax dollars and neglect by Capistrano Unified’s former superintendent, James Fleming, his administration and the trustees who were supposed to keep him in check.
“CUSD does have all the ingredients for a good school district—except one,” Russell says to the new superintendent. “Unfortunately, the CUSD board lacks a majority with honesty, integrity and accountability. This is why we attempted to recall the Fleming-era trustees in 2005, and why we have been compelled to commence another recall, just recently.”
He looks at two of the board’s longest-serving trustees: president Sheila Benecke and former president Marlene Draper. Both are the subjects of the latest recall effort by a broad coalition of South County parents and residents. “They have permitted a culture of corruption to infect our school district,” he says.
Russell, whose taut face and big eyes are framed by a swell of thick gray hair, thanks the new superintendent for his interest in the district—after all, two previous interim school chiefs have already come and gone. But his voice climbs (despite the microphone problems) to make a few other points, among them the allegation that the board and the district have repeatedly engaged in illegal closed-session meetings and that they have recklessly spent $52 million on the new administration building everyone is sitting in tonight, while kids in the district still languish in “substandard portable classrooms.”
The 51,000-student Capistrano Unified looks good on paper: high test scores, affluent neighborhoods, high graduation rates and a half-billion-dollar yearly budget. But Tom Russell is no solitary disgruntled gadfly. The father of three is the ardent spokesperson for the CUSD Recall Committee, a group that has mushroomed over the past two years into a bipartisan, grassroots movement now hundreds strong. Some would argue the movement is directly responsible for some of the major changes—and disturbing revelations—that have come about in the district.
The district’s response to this movement, meanwhile, has led to criminal charges. Fleming is set to go on trial on charges that he misappropriated district funds to engage in illegal political activity against district parents; he faces jail time if convicted. Ex-assistant superintendent Susan McGill faces five years in jail if convicted of perjury. And district attorney’s office investigations into secret meetings by the so-called “Fleming-era” trustees, four of whom still sit on the board, are ongoing.
Larry Christensen, an engineer and newly elected trustee, describes life on the CUSD dais like this: “It’s tense up there.”
* * *
Kevin Murphy considers himself a pretty regular dad. He’s the president of his son’s Little League and coaches football. A few years ago, he says, he was paying little attention to what was going on in the district. “We were one of the insider families,” he says. His wife was an active PTA president, and his four sons were earning great grades. He had a second-grader at the time, and one day he stopped by his son’s classroom at Ambuehl Elementary on a rainy day to pick him up. He saw buckets and leaky ceilings. The more he looked into conditions at his kids’ schools, the more substandard conditions he found. “This is a district surrounded by million-dollar homes,” he says. “It didn’t add up.”
One night, his wife came home after a PTA meeting at which Fleming had spoken. The then-superintendent told the group of parents that the district had plans for a new administration building that would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million. His wife, Jen, was told the money from the state could only be used toward new construction.
“Originally, my ire was at the state: How could they do that?” Murphy says, given the state of disrepair that many of the campuses were in. He decided to do some research, using his financial analyst’s skills. After looking through thousands of district documents, “I learned from their own website that the money could be used for anything,” he says.
Murphy was stunned. Had his wife been lied to? Why hadn’t the board of trustees questioned the district? Why would the district spend millions on a new building when the money could be used to fix his son’s school’s leaky roof or replace hundreds of aging portables crowding many of the district’s schools?
He met directly with the superintendent for breakfast one fall morning in 2004. “He talked for most of the hour and basically said that I didn’t understand school finances,” he says. “Halfway through the meeting, I told him what I do for a living and that I do understand what I’m doing and that someone is lying to me.” According to Murphy, the conversation then turned sour. “He basically said, ‘Even if you’ve done this research, what are you going to do about it?’ I stood up and said, ‘You know what? You’re fucking with the wrong Irishman,’ and I walked out.”
Murphy says he met with every trustee regarding the funding of the building and got nowhere. “They had no idea what I was talking about,” he says. His next move was a bold, if admittedly naive, one, he says now with hindsight.
“We’d just come off the recall of Governor Gray Davis, and I thought, why not do the same here? I had no idea what I was in for or how difficult it would all be.” He typed up a short note and circulated it at the next district board meeting. Anyone interested in getting involved in the recall of the district trustees was asked to include their e-mail address.
He was in luck. That night, parents angry over the district’s redrawing of school boundaries had shown up in droves. “I must have gotten 50 names and e-mails that night,” he says. “The boundary issue wasn’t my issue, was never my issue, but people were angry enough over different things that they signed.”
In attendance that night were Jennifer Beall and Tom Russell, also frustrated with the district for different reasons. “I had already lived almost three years with these lies,” says Beall, who, with other Rancho Santa Margarita parents, had spent months fighting the district’s expansion of an elementary school. After doing their own research into the district’s decision, they discovered that the $16 million expansion of the school was being paid for by a 1999 bond measure, which was promised for the repair of other district schools and which Rancho Santa Margarita residents weren’t even paying into.
“Really what drove us to the recall wasn’t that they built the school, but the process that got us there,” says Beall.
The future recall-committee leader says she had no problems with the district and the board until she began to interact with them. “I went to the meeting. I prepared a statement. I did what I was supposed to do,” she says. But after a few meetings at which she voiced her concerns over the district’s plan to build a high school in an office-park building, as well as the plan to expand the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade elementary school to a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade, things changed. She was voted off the board of Education for the Children, a nonprofit group that raised money for class-size reduction, which she had sat on for three years. “I was actually told to be quiet” by volunteers, she says. But, she says, she hit her boiling point when she first introduced herself to James Fleming.
“He put his hand out and then pulled it back,” she says. According to Beall, he then said, “Let me tell you the three mistakes you’ve made.” Someone else walked up, and she walked away before he got to the second mistake (the first was her involvement with Brad and Kathy Goff, vocal residents who didn’t have children in the district). “He never shook my hand. After that, there was no going back.”
The night he collected the signatures, Murphy went home and sent an e-mail to the 50 on his list and others he thought might be interested. Within a couple of days, he had received about 400 responses, he says.
In a few weeks, a group from far-flung corners of South County had gathered for their first meeting. They found their stories intersected on various levels. After years of trying to work with the district and the board over specific issues in their communities (residents in San Juan Capistrano were questioning the building of an overpriced school near a county dump; in Rancho Santa Margarita, residents were fighting a costly school expansion; Mission Viejo residents were trying to find out why their tax dollars had not been spent on their crumbling schools), many found that they had been stonewalled, intimidated or ignored.
Members of the group raised questions about a $65 million bond measure passed in 1999 that was meant to address some of the schools with the poorest conditions (no cafeterias, hundreds of leaky, crumbling, portable classrooms) and where that money had gone. It was later discovered that big chunks of the money were spent on the elementary-school expansion and the new high school by the dump (see “Surreal Estate,” Sept. 14).
They asked about the spending of a special tax paid by homeowners in planned communities that was supposed to be spent on schools. Later, it was revealed that $32 million of that money was put toward the building and loan repayment of the massive, resort-like administration building. Although the action wasn’t illegal, parents couldn’t understand why the building had not been discussed in board meetings or why the money hadn’t been used fix some of the most crowded schools.
“I was observing a complete lack of true independent inquisitiveness on their part,” says Mike Winsten, a San Juan Capistrano parent long frustrated with the board. “It really seemed when there was a discussion on some of these issues, they were just reading a script.”
It was decided at a second meeting that the group would launch an unprecedented recall of all seven of the trustees. Although it was the administration’s actions the group was questioning, many suspected that a long history of 7-0 votes by the trustees meant they were being unduly influenced by Superintendent Fleming. A core group of eight members—Tom Russell, Kevin Murphy, Jennifer Beall and Tom Winsten among them—was elected to coordinate the campaign.
* * *
What the group didn’t know at that second meeting—which was held at the home of Jennifer Beall and her husband, Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Tony Beall—was that someone there was taking notes. Those notes would later become the subject of a confidential memo sent from Fleming to Marlene Draper, then-president of the CUSD board, and the rest of the trustees, according to district documents and grand jury testimony. In the memo, titled “Report on Presumed ‘Recall’ Effort,” Fleming says he did not actively seek out the “insider.”
The Bealls say they remember becoming suspicious during the meeting. Included in the memo are their names, as well as others’, and a note from the mole: “As can be seen, all of the above individuals are either SJHHS [San Juan Hills High School] or Arroyo Vista K-8 NIMBYs who are, no doubt, hoping to make inroads with some in the district who may be unhappy about the final attendance boundary decision.”
At the time, the group also didn’t know that its e-mail blast had made it to the superintendent’s office. What happened next would later become the subject of much controversy. According to grand jury testimony by Fleming’s former personal secretary, Kate McIntyre, at Fleming’s request, she had the IT department create a database of all the names on the e-mail, what city they were in and if they were connected to any school in the district. She said they requested the spreadsheet to find out how certain district e-mails had wound up on the e-mail blast. This was prompted, she said, after five or so parents from PTA Council had called wanting to know why they had received Murphy’s e-mail.
In her testimony, McIntyre said they never contacted Murphy directly to find out where he got the e-mail addresses. She also says she and the superintendent requested the database to “find out if they were parents in our district. If they lived in San Juan, if they lived in Arroyo Vista, Aliso Viejo, so we can find out where they had people unhappy with us.”
After the IT department supplied the database, according to McIntyre, she sat down with the superintendent, and they made notes on the names on the list—adding code letters next to them to indicate where they were from. “These were each areas where we had people upset with us for different reasons,” she said in her testimony. This list would not surface publicly until more than a year later.
By mid-2005, a massive recall campaign was underway; the group had embarked on the daunting task of collecting more than 20,000 signatures per trustee during a six-month period. In every district area, Jennifer Beall coordinated team volunteers, who then coordinated their own volunteers. They went door-to-door, stood outside schools during back-to-school nights and set up tables at grocery stores.
The group was met with sneers by those in the district who felt they had a right-wing agenda (referring to the members of the group angry over the boundary issues) or that they were a bunch of NIMBYs with too much time on their hands. “People would come up to me and say I hated children,” says Kathy Goff, a petition gatherer with a frank, brash approach who has been involved in the recall effort with her husband, Brad, since the beginning.
Trustee Sheila Benecke, one of the two board members who are being targeted for recall a second time, maintains that the group’s anger stems from the district’s redrawing of boundaries. “I look at it as a political ploy of the recall leaders to attempt to cause chaos and notoriety, to defund the school district and the students of the school district,” she says.
The group carved out a clear, simple message and put it on T-shirts, business cards, banners, posters, and on their document- and picture-heavy comprehensive website. It wasn’t hard to get parents to listen once volunteers shared with them photos of moldy portable classrooms with rat droppings and rotting wood at Newhart Middle School in Mission Viejo, and then compared those with pictures of the palatial administration building—which detractors dubbed “the Taj Mahal”—that was under construction and plainly visible from Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano.
By compiling their own paper trail, the group became a kind of district watchdog, exposing things for parents through their website and press releases such as the conflict of interest for Marlene Draper and her daughter, who is the vice president of the firm that does a bulk of the district’s environmental-impact reports, or the way they believe money has been egregiously mismanaged by the district.
Many of the concerns raised by the group during the first recall were later backed up by dozens of documents acquired through public-records requests by the recall group and other parents not involved with the recall, but who were fed up with conflicting stories they were getting from the district.
“Parents have been asking for the truth around those Mello-Roos funds for a long time, and they just didn’t know who to ask,” says one Mission Viejo mom, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of district retaliation. She and other parents tried for several years to find out how their money from the special property tax known as Mello-Roos, which was established in 1982 to fund schools and other facilities in new communities, was being spent. The money pot at the time for Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo was around $100 million, but no one knew exactly how it was being spent.
“We thought, well, what’s happening? Our schools are in terrible condition. Where’s the money going to?” says the Mission Viejo mom. Her children were attending Newhart Middle School; when she visited, she found an overcrowded school with rows and rows of dilapidated portables. This was just after the district had initiated construction of the new high school and the lavish administration building.
“We were told by the administration that we were too negative. That we should be thankful for what we had—and that made us really angry.”
She and other parents—who were not directly involved with the recall at the time—formed a modernization group, drafted a report, and snapped pictures of the decrepit, crowded portable classrooms and posted them online. “When that got around, it became part of the ammunition for the recall because people did not know that they had schools in their community like this. People lived in million-dollar houses, they drove their fancy BMWs and Mercedeses, dropping their kids off at school—and the kids were going to a school that was a trailer park and a pit.”
She and other parents never imagined, however, that money from the Mello-Roos taxes was being spent on the district’s brand-new administration building. Not until November 2005 did parents finally learn, through an Orange County Register article, that $11 million in Mello-Roos funds from Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo had gone toward the construction. (The figure is now at $13 million.)
Past estimates have put the cost of the building at $52 million, a figure that also included interest on loans. According to the district, the cost of the building thus far is $36.4 million. With interest, the total cost is now estimated at $53.4 million. Chief Financial Officer Sherri Hahn says the district hopes to pay the loans off sooner in order to bring the total cost down.
Recall members also discovered, through records requests, that facilities director David Doomey did not see plans for the building before approving funding for it and that the contract was a no-bid deal. Doomey did not publicly admit that the district had misled the public about the funding of the building until a full year later, in 2006.
“I did not know how the administration building was being funded at the time,” says trustee Sheila Benecke. But, she adds, “The use of Mello-Roos dollars for district-support facilities is perfectly legal.”
* * *
The circulation of the portables pictures generated more interest in the recall and prompted CUSD to begin some improvements. However, 25 percent of the district’s 2,290 classrooms are currently portables.
Parents and teachers nervous about being affiliated with the group signed petitions at home. In October 2005, the group submitted more than 175,000 signatures to county Registrar Neal Kelly. “We had never really thought about what we would do if we didn’t make it,” says Murphy. “We had been told by the registrar if we were 10 percent over, we were fine.” The group submitted a little more than 25,000 signatures per trustee, well more than the required 20,421 per person. “We weren’t worried,” says Murphy.
On Dec. 22, 2005, the registrar announced that thousands of signatures had been invalidated and that, as a result, the rest didn’t reach the minimum needed for a recall election. “I was shocked and extremely deflated,” Murphy says.
A couple of weeks later, on Jan. 4, a group of committee members went to the registrar’s office to inspect the petitions that had been invalidated. Jennifer Beall and a group of volunteers began an exhaustive recount and research effort, discovering that 3,000 of the 8,000 signatures rejected for Sheila Benecke were done so erroneously.
Unbeknownst to the recall committee, district officials also made a visit to the registrar’s office in early January. On Jan. 6, then-Assistant Superintendent Susan McGill and Director of Communications David Smollar went there at the superintendent’s request to look at the same recall petitions—acts that were illegal, and for which Kelly, the county registrar, later apologized. During the course of a couple of hours, according to Smollar’s testimony in a separate case, he and McGill gathered the names of a few dozen people whose names showed up repeatedly as petition gatherers on the petitions.
McGill then allegedly gave her secretary, Barbara Thacker, a list that contained 24 names. McGill’s note read: “The following names were listed as petition-gatherers on dozens and dozens of signature petitions, accounting for as many as 90 percent of the petitions submitted to the Registrar.” A second list was compiled, with two dozen more names of petition gatherers who appeared on “10 or fewer petitions.” McGill then instructed her secretary to create databases containing the names, spouse’s names, children’s names, children’s schools, children’s grades, addresses, cities, ZIP codes, and phone numbers for both sets of lists. In a memo submitted to the superintendent on Jan. 12, McGill states, “Per your request, attached are the lists of individuals who were listed as petition signature-gatherers along with information on whether they have children in CUSD and which schools those children attend. I am available to answer any questions you may have.”
Oblivious to these acts, the recall group were focused on their registrar report regarding the rejected signatures. Around this time, Murphy, who had launched the recall, says he was exhausted and wanted to get back to spending more time with his family, so he resigned as head of the group. There were also, he says, differences of opinion “about which direction we should go in.”
Murphy and some of the people in his group decided to go forward with a lawsuit against the registrar’s office (now on appeal) and CUSD (subsequently dismissed), while the Beall-Russell group, which now heads the official “CUSD Recall Committee,” decided to focus their attention on electing three new trustees to the seats that were due to open up in November 2006.
“A lot of people ask me if I think it failed,” says Murphy of the first recall. “And I say, no. We brought all these issues out to the front, and I don’t think they’d ever been looked at before. . . . I probably voted for Marlene and Mike [Darnold] before without doing any research.”
“The recall made everyone operating on their own little island realize that we were not an island,” says one parent who was too nervous to participate in the first recall, but has since become active in the second recall.
“It raised the awareness about these issues throughout the county and made us feel like we weren’t isolated anymore,” says Barbara Casserly. “We realized, wow, this is going on everywhere, and it’s not just happening to us.”
Casserly, who for years has been active in the district through the PTA, was not directly involved in the first recall effort, but she did sign a petition at home. “I didn’t speak for years, out of fear,” says Casserly, who once lobbied for money for the district in Sacramento, but was warned by other PTA members not to ask around about district spending. “The PTA made us very nervous about talking to the press. That intimidation really did work.” Instead, she says, she stayed in the system, became a PTA president and kept her mouth shut.
She says she followed the district culture, which was to talk behind-the-scenes and to never publicly criticize the school district. “I wasn’t treated bad because I was in the closet. They didn’t know publicly where I stood.”
Casserly says the breaking point for her was later that year, in July 2006, when the Register broke the story on the political “enemies lists” compiled by Fleming. “When I learned that McGill had traveled to the registrar’s office to look at petitions in January 2006, I felt betrayed,” she says. “Parents, teachers were already so nervous about signing the petition, how could they go down there and do that?”
* * *
After the news broke about the political “enemies” lists, the superintendent repeatedly denied having any knowledge of the lists or that his office had generated them. Parents were outraged, demanding to know how this had happened. Members of several South County city councils called for Fleming’s resignation or termination.
“It’s one thing to come after me since I came after you. I’m fine with that,” says Murphy, whose name was on the lists. “But there’s no reason to go after my kids.” Less than a week after the story broke, Fleming announced his resignation but gave no specific date. At the end of the month, during a Saturday board meeting about the hiring of a new superintendent, the board voted to hire an independent investigator to look into the issue of the lists and other allegations made by parents at the time.
By this time, a county district attorney’s office investigation was already under way—and had been since February. “We had received a bunch of citizen complaints from different sources,” says Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for the DA’s office, regarding the initiation of the investigation.
On Aug. 14, 2006, DA investigators raided the district office, seizing Fleming’s computer and other district computers and files. That night, he was given a standing ovation during his resignation and farewell speech at the district board meeting. A few days later, the DA began what would turn out to be a year’s worth of grand jury witness interviews with 14 district administrators and employees.
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.”
As parents hurry past Beall, she gives chase, peppering them with one-liners: “These last two trustees just increased class size and gave a 7 percent raise to the administration . . . $16.9 million left our city to build a new administration building . . . Tell all your friends we’re out here; we’re just a bunch of moms . . .” Despite their harried expressions, many parents stop and quickly sign the two sheets. They don’t seem to need much convincing.
“It’s a pretty easy sell here,” says Beall. “This being one of the worst campuses, everyone is pretty appalled and well-informed.”
But it doesn’t take long for a series of similar questions to begin popping up from one or another parent: “Hey, how do you find out if your name was on that list?” one father asks.
“Who’s going to call me because I’m signing this?” asks another mom.
Then someone else: “Are we going to show up on the bad-people list?”
In some form or another, the questions keep coming: Will there be another list? Is my privacy protected? Is my kid safe?
“I am totally floored by what I see in this district,” says John Smith, a former teacher and school administrator in Cerritos who is out volunteering for the first time tonight. “I came from a district where the superintendent was just like Fleming,” he says. “I couldn’t stomach it anymore; I had to get involved.”
Smith is perched on the corner of La Paz Road and Oso Viejo. “I had parents tonight say they didn’t want to sign because they didn’t want their names to show up on a list. That’s the climate here,” he says.
Because of this climate, and because of the extensive recount the recall group did for their own report following the first recall, Beall says they are taking no chances for any errors this time around. Voters are asked to fill out every part of the petition, and each and every single voter is being verified via software the recall committee purchased from the registrar’s office.
So far, Beall says, of the signatures they’ve gathered, 85 percent have been verified as accurate by the software. With a goal of submitting 20,000 more signatures per trustee by November (in order to qualify for the February primary elections), she and dozens of volunteers are hustling every weekend.
Recall spokesman Tom Russell explains why they mean to get it right this time. “We’re dealing with a staff and a culture down there that has been trained with ethical and legal baselines that are completely different from anyone else,” he says. “They think that what they’re doing is right because they’ve been trained wrong. They’ve set the ethical bar so low that normal human beings who walk in there expecting fair treatment end up in an Alice In Wonderland.”