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Probes target Centinela Valley school district superintendent's pay

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County, state and federal authorities are investigating the compensation of a South Bay school district superintendent who received nearly $675,000 last year, far more than the leaders of much larger systems.

The FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, among others, are looking into the earnings of Supt. Jose Fernandez, who was placed on paid leave by the Board of Education last week pending the probes.

The Centinela Valley Union High School District board held a lengthy meeting Tuesday evening in which members attempted to address the controversy, including selecting a new president and an interim superintendent. Parents and others lambasted board members, complaining about the high compensation and threatening recalls.

Just before the meeting's conclusion, new president Hugo M. Rojas announced that he was "working with" an FBI agent.

Rojas also said he would cooperate with the L.A. County district attorney, but did not explicitly state that a probe was underway. On Wednesday, a district employee with knowledge of the inquiries told The Times that Centinela was providing records to the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, which investigates local corruption. The employee was not authorized to speak publicly.

Both the FBI and district attorney's office cited policy that forbids them to comment on whether a probe is in progress.

An independent review also is underway by the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

The agency "has initiated an audit of the contract agreement and subsequent compensation to Mr. Fernandez," said spokeswoman Margo Minecki.

And, in a letter to the school district, county Supt. Arturo Delgado wrote that his office had been notified of a review by the California Public Employees' Retirement System. CalPERS did not respond to a request for information.

Fernandez's 2013 compensation was inflated by a one-time supplement of $230,000 he used to buy seniority in state retirement systems. That action will allow him to collect a higher pension when he retires.

Fernandez, 54, did not attend this week's meeting and said he could not discuss his issues with the board. But he has insisted that members understood his contract when they approved it with the advice of counsel. He added that he specifically contacted the county education office to verify that his employment terms complied with the law and that the district has a record of that correspondence.

The Centinela board distanced itself publicly from Fernandez for the first time.

"Our superintendent was greedy," Rojas said near the end of a six-hour meeting that stretched to nearly midnight. "Our superintendent obviously has a questionable background.… Based on the fact that this is a personnel matter, I cannot speak further."

Speaker after speaker called for the board to resign or face recall.

The community doesn't "want you up there," longtime resident Jay Gould told board members. "If you can't see that, you're stupid.… You can go to another city and ruin them."

Board member Gloria Ramos tried to appease the 200 or so parents and others who had complained for two hours. "We are listening," she said. "You may not like the results of everything. I don't always like the results."

Board member Rocio C. Pisano said she understood that many people were unhappy that Fernandez was still being paid, but that legal restrictions govern such decisions. After a full investigation, she said, "a lot of things will come to light."

The embattled board took several concrete steps to try to rebuild public confidence.

One was to elect Rojas to succeed Maritza Molina as board president. Molina had been especially associated with a public defense of Fernandez.

That move failed to placate those gathered in the cavernous Centinela Valley Center for the Arts in Lawndale.

The board also authorized staff to begin a search for a company to investigate Fernandez's salary.

And it voted to hire a law firm to examine how to reduce the district's legal fees. Fernandez has hired a lawyer for his own defense at his own cost, Rojas said.

Fernandez's contract, which expires June 30, 2016, comes with strong job protections. Removing him without cause would require four votes of the five-member board. He also would receive 18 months of severance pay.

The Board of Education selected Assistant Supt. Bob Cox as interim superintendent. He earns $162,250; the board hasn't decided if he'll be paid more in his new role.

But board members have surrendered stipends of $800 a month for a cellphone and car allowance, after an alert from the county education office. Legally, a small district can pay members only $240 a month for attending meetings, which board members already were receiving, they were told. Centinela has 6,600 students in three high schools and two alternative programs.

Board members have declined requests for comment. But Molina defended the work of Fernandez in a recent interview, saying he stabilized a school system on the verge of bankruptcy in 2008.

Fernandez had said he received a generous contract because he agreed to take control of the school system at a risky time. He made more last year than the leaders of the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago public school districts.

Centinela is no longer rated as financially unstable, but students and parents complained about various issues, including a shortage of textbooks and classroom supplies.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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