Controversial ‘Education Center’ Schools Parents in Bond Pitfalls

Capistrano Unified HQ: District staff staff labored in something that looked more like a Four Seasons resort.

Capistrano Unified HQ: More like a Four Seasons resort.

Anyone looking down the barrel of an $889 million school bond should consider what the Capistrano Unified School District did with its last bond, in 2002.

After issuing the bond – called a certificate of participation (COP) – the district began constructing a $35 million administration building in San Juan Capistrano, east of I-5. Opened in 2006, Capistrano USD called it the Education Center.

Critics called it the Taj Mahal. In a recall notice some of them delivered to trustees, they sounded as if they were attended by men in short pants, tri-corner hats and a fife-and-drum corps. “You are are recklessly spending $52,000,000 on an administration building … while our schools are in dire need of repairs and students are crammed into substandard portable classrooms with non-functioning restrooms,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, Superintendent James Fleming’s staff labored in something that looked more like a Four Seasons resort. Controversy was probably inevitable. Fleming didn’t make things better when he went on the offensive, tracking his critics on what some called an enemies list, and either blaming others for the overbuilt Education Center or suggesting it was actually an entrepreneurial marvel – a revenue-generator operated by a government agency.

“In terms of the design of the building, it was put together by a committee of people and built to accommodate tenants that would pay rent,” Fleming told the Orange County Register.

That last piece – that Fleming and other district officials planned to pay off the bond in part through leases paid by non-district tenants – became yet another point of criticism.

But the lease revenue isn’t going toward the debt. In 2008, two years after the ribbon-cutting at the Education Center, the Great Recession hit, and government agencies began their feverish search for new revenue. In 2012, Capistrano Unified determined that revenue from tenants leasing space in the Education Center would better serve the district in the general fund – where it could be used to support the salaries of teachers who had gone on strike following a 10% pay cut in 2010.

A bond intended to improve buildings had, in short, become a way to generate income for operating expenses.

Controversy surrounding the Education Center ignited two recalls of school board trustees, in 2005 and 2010. The first recall failed but exposed the enemies list.

Fleming insists the enemies list was a myth created by his enemies.

“There is not now and never was an ‘enemies’ list,” Fleming told the Orange County Register in 2011.

In December 2010, a California appellate court acknowledged the existence of Fleming’s list, but dismissed the charges against him. The logic: it was within Fleming’s purview as superintendent “to research the nature of the discontent and unrest in the district at the time.”

By then, Fleming had already been retired for four years. He sued Capistrano Unified for severance pay, lost future earnings, and legal expenses. An appellate court ruled against him.

The district Fleming fled is asking voters to approve an $889 million bond on the November ballot. Fleming? He’s retired and living in Florida, collecting a $155,540 annual pension from his time at Capistrano Unified.

Catrin Thorman and Andrew Heritage are California Policy Center Journalism Fellows. She is a graduate of Azusa Pacific University, and a former Teach for America corps member. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.

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