Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares addresses the state of OCDE’s budget.
The Orange County Department of Education has a well-earned reputation for producing fiscally sound budgets that safeguard the investments of taxpayers while ensuring first-rate services for students and local school districts. So it was disappointing to learn that three members of the Orange County Board of Education recently voted to file a costly and unnecessary lawsuit against me and California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond after they had submitted an unauthorized budget to CDE, purportedly on behalf of OCDE, but without my signature or approval. I say disappointing, but it is not surprising. This unfortunately marks the latest example of this board majority’s willingness to waste taxpayer dollars rather than follow the law.
I want to be clear that this litigation — and our current budget impasse — will not affect OCDE’s operational stability, our support for local districts, our services for students, or compensation for our valued employees. Moreover, I want to express in no uncertain terms that this dispute is not a reflection on the tremendous work of our staff, and we believe it will ultimately be resolved favorably by the courts. In the interest of candor and transparency, however, I find it necessary to clarify the law, our process and our responsibilities for governance.
Under California law, county boards are directed to approve or disapprove budgets that are developed by county superintendents and their staffs. That’s how the process has always worked at OCDE. County boards may not unilaterally amend or modify the county superintendent’s budget. But this summer, three members of the Orange County Board of Education attempted to change portions of our balanced and fiscally sound budget after it had been subject to a public hearing — and after the board had numerous opportunities to provide input. The California Department of Education (CDE) objected, directing the board to restart its process with a public hearing. The board majority complied, but they still attempted to submit their modified budget directly to the state without my signature or approval. The state rightfully rejected it and, by Oct. 8, the board had missed its deadline to submit a legally acceptable spending plan. The CDE treated that failure as the functional equivalent of a disapproved budget, triggering the formation of a state budget review committee to resolve the matter. Rather than waiting for the state process to be completed as required by law, and instead of participating in that process in good faith, the board jumped the gun and filed its lawsuit on Nov. 18, naming me and the state superintendent as defendants before an administrative decision could be rendered.
This is the second time in less than 18 months that the current board majority has initiated a lawsuit against me. The first suit challenged a previously agreed upon administrative process for hiring OCDE’s in-house general counsel. Under California law, the county superintendent serves as the employer of certificated and classified employees and has the sole right to fill open positions. This authority has been reaffirmed by opinions of the California attorney general through the years. Nevertheless, I asked the board to participate in our final round of interviews through its executive committee, which included then-President Jack Bedell and Vice President David Boyd. Our selection for general counsel was ultimately unanimous, and the former board majority did not object to the process. But when Ken Williams later became president, and new board members Mari Barke and Lisa Sparks joined him, he sought to overturn the hire.
Now comes an attempt by Williams and the same board majority to dictate OCDE’s budget. The three trustees publicly say they are “cutting the fat” by proposing $170,000 worth of reductions to travel — including professional development — and legislative advocacy. But they have yet to explain how reducing a $257 million budget by 0.07% would have any impact on fiscal stability or benefit students in any way. It would, however, set an alarming precedent, which is why so many county offices are following this case closely. A very real concern is that three board members, driven by political or ideological agendas, could defy state laws or otherwise block a county office’s ability to train educators on state standards, ensure the quality of charter schools, or support a diverse student population.
In fact, the cuts proposed by three members of the Orange County Board of Education exemplify the expression “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” OCDE has become a respected voice on state and national educational issues because our professional staff has been willing to share its expertise and engage in thoughtful conversations outside county boundaries. Wherever new policies are taking shape, whether in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., we have a seat at the table because we are trusted to do what’s right for students.
With an elected superintendent and an elected board of education, the dynamics that exist at the county level are unique, demanding communication and collaboration on behalf of those we are honored to collectively serve. Yet our roles are distinct and clearly defined by the law. While California’s Education Code may empower county board members to provide input during the budget development process, it does not grant that body unilateral authority to modify the superintendent’s budget or submit its own budget. Moreover, in the rare cases where disputes arise, there is an administrative remedy in place to resolve them.
As the elected superintendent of schools for Orange County, I take very seriously the responsibilities with which I have been entrusted by voters, most notably my duties as employer for the Orange County Department of Education and steward of taxpayer dollars. I also take great pride in working with staff to propel an organization that embodies the values of responsibility, integrity and compassion. While the board majority’s latest legal actions are a distraction — and could potentially waste an incredible sum of money in combined legal expenses that will unnecessarily deplete financial resources earmarked for educational purposes — they will not deter OCDE from honoring these values and our unwavering commitments to students, schools and the law.
Al Mijares, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools