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By Collin Breaux

The Capistrano Unified School District is planning to hold a special election in November to fill a vacancy for the Area 2 trustee seat, in the wake of former Trustee Pamela Braunstein’s resignation.

The election will be held on Nov. 8, and the position will remain vacant until then.

Area 2 covers Ladera Ranch and most of San Juan Capistrano. Braunstein recently resigned because of disagreements with proposed anti-mask policies brought forth by other trustees, as well as personal safety concerns following what she said was “never-ending, organized harassment by a certain vocal minority.”

Trustees and parents who spoke during a meeting on Wednesday, March 16, favored deciding the new representative through an election instead of appointing someone. Even if someone was appointed in the interim, CUSD would still have to call a special election in November.

“I was appointed, and Trustee (Judy) Bullockus was as well, but I think something happened in the world,” Trustee Krista Castellanos said. “We all had a life-altering event, and when life-altering events happen, things change. We’ve all had them, and have lived through a pandemic or are living through a pandemic. How I got to the board, I think, has now changed.”

Trustee Gila Jones said someone who gets a provisional appointment is the “appointed incumbent.”

“Generally, the appointed incumbent is reelected—so it may seem as though the voters are being given a choice, but the dice gets a little bit stacked,” Jones said.

Trustee Amy Hanacek said appointments have been the previous norm, but “a trustee departure due to personal safety concerns and harassment and emotionally charged board meetings might be the new normal.”

With more public focus on the school district, transparency and giving the public a voice are important, Hanacek said.

“(The appointment process) was a way to circumvent a voters’ election,” Hanacek said. “The fairest thing to do is to take it to the voters of that area.”

CUSD cannot legally hold an election for the seat before November.

Trustees also addressed the circumstances of Braunstein’s departure, including the hostile tone of recent board meetings fueled by anti-mask and anti-vaccination sentiments from parents and students.

“Let’s focus on speaking to each other with kindness and respect. Let’s agree to disagree, and find common ground and work together to bring success to our students,” Castellanos said. “Let’s focus on educational leaders. Allow them to lead, and trust their knowledge and insight.”

Jones said she is against audience members booing trustees and student advisors with whom they disagree, also speaking about “inappropriate” and “threatening” emails she herself received.

“I’ve served with these five board members for at least a year, as well as five others who’ve departed. Each of them has said things or voted in ways that has perplexed and frustrated me, and sometimes I’ve even been angry,” Jones said.

“But without exception,” she continued, “I have found all 10 to be ethical, principled people who sit in these seats and spent countless hours on this job because they care deeply about children and their education.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.                         

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