When middle-class parents in California opened their newspapers recently and read that the leviathan Los Angeles Unified School District had overpaid their employees by $53 million, many likely took comfort in the belief that at least the school districts in their own cozy suburban neighborhoods were well managed. These parents, however, should think again.
School districts in middle-class and affluent communities across California have been the targets of investigations by grand juries and prosecutors. For example, last May a grand jury in conservative Orange County indicted the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) on several felony counts of misuse of taxpayer funds. With the median home price in the district in the upper six figures and with median household income way above the state average, the community served by the CUSD is a far cry from poor urban school districts like Oakland and Compton, which have had highly publicized fiscal problems. Yet, the affluence of CUSD parents did not protect them from the alleged criminality of their public-school officials.
The Capistrano debacle started with discontent among parents over the skyrocketing cost of a planned district headquarters building. A local newspaper estimated the price tag at $52 million, double the original official estimate. Anger over this spending fiasco triggered a parent-supported recall campaign against school board members who backed the bureaucrats’ Taj Mahal. That, in turn caused district superintendent James Fleming, the highest paid superintendent in the county, to launch a vendetta against the parent-organizers of the recall.
Among other things, Fleming is alleged to have ordered his assistant superintendent to find out who among the supporters of the recall petition had children in Capistrano schools. Confidential pupil databases were allegedly used to search for the children of the petition circulators. In other words, Fleming is said to have created an illegal enemies list of parents and their children. Tony Rackauckas, the county district attorney, said: “We are bombarded with complaints from educators and parents that our schools are strapped for cash and children have to do with less. It’s a shame that resources were shifted away from students to create an unlawful list of political enemies.”
The Capistrano scandal is no anomaly. The San Mateo Unified High School District, located in a high-priced suburb just south of San Francisco, has been the focus of several recent grand jury investigations. One grand jury report found that the district faced a $164-million debt because costs for its construction projects far exceeded its construction budget. The grand jury also discovered sweetheart employment deals, including a consulting contract to the retired assistant of the district’s then-superintendent. The contract did not call for any specific accomplishments and allowed for large overtime payments without any documentation that work was ever performed.
The San Mateo district also failed to repay loans, gave false statements on grant applications, and granted employees raises in the midst of its fiscal meltdown. The grand jury concluded that the “District has prepared and distributed misleading financial statements, incurred unnecessary expenses, engaged in questionable transactions and potentially exposed the District to substantial fines and penalties.”
The waste, corruption and the massive financial mismanagement in school districts in affluent areas like San Juan Capistrano and San Mateo demonstrate that middle-class parents are just as likely as other parents to have their tax dollars misspent by the government school system. Indeed, Tony Beall, the mayor of the city of Santa Margarita, located within the Capistrano school district, points out that Capistrano’s problems “are the tip of the iceberg” because fiscal dysfunction and poor accountability are inherent in the public school system. Such built-in failure is a powerful argument for greater school choice options for all parents, including middle-class parents.
How much more effective would the Capistrano parents have been if, rather than enduring a cumbersome and corrupt political process, they had a voucher that allowed them to take their children out of the public schools immediately. The potential exodus of masses of parents and their children would act as a huge incentive for school districts to meet the needs of parents and children rather than ignore and even attack them. In the end, parents would get the type of education they want for their children, delivered more effectively and efficiently, and public school officials would get a much needed wake-up call that they are in business to serve the public and not themselves.