Former South Bay schools chief fired after pay scandal sues district

Former South Bay schools chief paid more than $770,000 in 2013 is suing district for wrongful firing

A former South Bay schools superintendent fired last year following a furor over his $750,000-plus annual pay package is suing the Centinela Valley Union High School District for wrongful termination, age discrimination and other alleged legal violations.

In a lawsuit filed this week, Jose A. Fernandez alleged that the Centinela district had suspended, then fired, him last year without following the proper steps outlined in his contract and in violation of the state open-meeting law.

Bob Cox, Centinela’s interim superintendent, said district officials would not comment because they had not yet seen the lawsuit. Fernandez and his attorney, Thomas W. Porter, also declined to comment.

The lawsuit alleged that:

-Age was a "substantial motivating factor" in the educator’s dismissal because he was 54 at the time, just one year away from qualifying for district-paid retirement benefits.

-Fernandez was fired in retaliation for refusing to participate in what he believed would be illegal activities by two Board of Education members. Actions alleged in the lawsuit included an attempt by Board President Hugo Rojas for the district to hire his girlfriend without the required education credentials and board member Gloria Ramos’ request for Fernandez to support what he believed were fraudulent workers’ compensation claims. He also opposed what he believed was the improper use of district resources for Ramos’ political activities.

Fernandez’s compensation, first disclosed in the Daily Breeze, sparked an uproar last year and calls for his removal and the recall of the Board of Education members who approved his contract, first in 2009 and then extended to 2016.

While his 2013 base pay was $281,331, his total compensation that year ballooned to more than $770,000 because the district gave him a one-time payment of $230,213 to purchase more seniority in state retirement systems so he would receive a higher annual pension. Other perks included payments for life insurance premiums; unused vacation days; extra work days; car and cellphone costs and his postgraduate degree.

Centinela educates 6,600 high school students enrolled on three campuses and in two small alternative programs, but Fernandez’s earnings dwarfed those of superintendents of far larger school districts. New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina oversees the nation's largest district, with more than 1 million students, and makes $412,193. Los Angeles Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines makes $300,000 annually running the nation's second-largest school system of 640,000 students.

Fernandez has said his compensation was fair because he took over the school system at a time of financial turmoil and turned it around. But state and county auditors found he was inappropriately paid for some items and said he should repay the district at least $200,000.

The lawsuit alleged that the school board violated the state’s open-meeting law, known as the Brown Act, by failing to post a 24-hour notice of a closed session last May 13 on the compensation issue. It also asserted that board members fired Fernandez in July without giving him a written statement of the reasons why and an opportunity to respond to them, as legally required. The lawsuit said that the board’s eventual efforts to do so were made retroactively as a "sham attempt to comply with the contract."

Fernandez is asking for reinstatement, back pay and damages for emotional distress, among other things.

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

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