By Shawn Raymundo

The Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees has opted to initiate an appointment process in order to fill its vacant seat that was previously held by Gary Pritchard, whose four-year term representing Area 5 was set to expire in 2020.

During a special board meeting held Wednesday, Aug. 14, the trustees voted in favor of appointing a new trustee to the seven-member body rather than calling for a special election, citing costs and time constraints.

Based on estimates provided by the Orange County Registrar of Voters, CUSD noted that a special election to fill the vacancy was likely to cost the district about $165,000 to $185,000.

CUSD also wouldn’t be able to hold the special election for the Area 5 seat, which represents portions of Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel, until California’s Primary Elections on March 3, 2020.

“As far as dates go, if we were to appoint in September, we have pretty close to a year that that person would be on the board,” Board President Gila Jones said, further noting that “the election would not be till March 3; that means they’re only with us eight months, and then they’ll have to run again, and having that vacancy is of concern to me.”

Per the state’s election code, special elections are to be held on regular election dates but no fewer than 130 days after a seat has been vacated. Because an election held on Nov. 5 would be too soon, an election couldn’t have taken place until the spring.

From the public’s perspective, Trustee Judy Bullockus acknowledged that the drawback to appointing someone is that voters wouldn’t get a say in the matter. However, drawing from her own experience as an appointee who had nearly a year and a half before the seat was up for election, she said it takes about a year to learn the job. She also noted that her appointment saved the district the roughly $160,000 it would have spent on an election.

“Now my term, that was about 18 months. We’re talking about this term being less, essentially about 12 months that the person would actually be (a trustee),” Bullockus said. “Let me say, it takes about 12 months just to learn the job, but you’re spending $180,000 just to put someone in for a year.”

As the trustee for Area 7, Bullockus represents portions of Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo and Coto de Caza. She was appointed to the position in June 2017 and was elected in 2018 to serve her first full term ending 2022.

Trustee Amy Hanacek echoed some of Bullockus’ sentiments, noting that the district is currently exercising austerity measures and shouldn’t consider an election when the alternative process of appointing a trustee can save money.

“I cannot support spending that type of money right now when we have a vehicle with which, as we did with Trustee Bullockus, to appoint someone provisionally,” said Hanacek, who represents Area 1, encompassing portions of San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and Dana Point.

Pritchard, who represented Area 5 and was serving as board vice president this year, resigned from his post on Friday, Aug. 9, because he relocated out of the area, CUSD recently announced.

The board met Wednesday for a scheduled special meeting to get public input on the Orange County Academy of Sciences and Arts’ application to form the OCASA College Prep charter school.

Following Pritchard’s resignation, CUSD included the item for the board to also discuss replacement proceedings for the open seat on the special meeting agenda.

At the onset of Wednesday’s meeting, Trustee Hanacek offered a brief statement about Pritchard’s departure, noting that although he wouldn’t have wanted to make a big deal of it, his presence would be missed.

“Gary possessed unique qualities that will be severely missed. As an educator, father of school-aged children, champion for public education and dean of Cerritos College, he brought a profound perspective of that K-14 experience,” Hanacek said, concluding: “Here’s to you, Dr. Pritchard, thank you for your service to young people and keeping the focus on the profound role of public education.”

For nearly a decade, Pritchard served on the board, having first been elected in 2010. He was reelected in 2012 to serve a full four-year term and he later won his reelection bid in 2016.

According to CUSD’s proposed timeline, the district has begun accepting applications for candidates in Area 5 who wish to be considered for the seat. The window to submit applications will run through Aug. 28, as the district is looking to have the seat filled by mid-September.

Superintendent Kirsten Vital told the board that CUSD would be advertising the open seat by reaching out to the governing bodies in Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel.

If all goes to plan, the board could hold public interviews with candidates during a special meeting on Sept. 9 and a new trustee could be sworn in as early as Sept. 18, according to the district’s proposed timeline of board actions.

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