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Top Centinela official says FBI probing superintendent's high salary

A top Centinela schools official on Tuesday said the FBI has contacted the district regarding the high salary of Supt. Jose Fernandez, who was paid $674,559 last year.

The official, newly elevated school board President Hugo M. Rojas, said he is prepared to cooperate fully with both the FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Rojas did not clarify whether the district attorney had actually contacted him or the Centinela Valley Union High School District -- he left quickly after the conclusion of the six-hour board meeting Tuesday, which took place at the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts in Lawndale.

Fernandez, who is on paid leave, did not attend.

Rojas made his comments just before adjourning, and they included harsh criticism of Fernandez.

“Our superintendent was greedy,” Rojas said. “Our superintendent obviously has a questionable background.… Based on the fact that this is a personnel matter, I cannot speak further.”

Fernandez managed a South Bay school system of 6,600 students spread across three high schools and two small alternative programs. But his 2013 earnings were higher than the leaders of the nation's three largest school systems.

The embattled Board of Education took several steps Tuesday in an effort to rebuild public confidence. One step was to elect Rojas to succeed Maritza Molina as board president, but that measure failed to placate an audience that exceeded 200 at its peak. Speakers called instead for the entire board to resign rather than merely switch roles.

Members of the community “don’t want you up there,” lifelong local resident Jay Gould told board members. “If you can’t see that, you’re stupid.… You can go to another city and ruin them.”

“You’ve got to stop paying this man,” said Chris Morales, a math teacher who left the school system to teach elsewhere. “He’s detrimental. He’s been a cancer to this district.”

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

In addition, the board voted to hire a law firm and gave it the goal of determining how to reduce the district’s legal fees. That may be a tall order in the short term: Fernandez has hired a lawyer, Rojas announced. And 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' severance pay.

The Board of Education also chose Assistant Supt. Bob Cox as the interim superintendent. Board members said Cox’s elevation was to be temporary. The search for a longer-term interim superintendent would begin immediately, they said.

Near the end of the meeting, other board members also spoke about the Fernandez situation after weeks of mostly silence.

Board member Rocio C. Pisano urged patience.

“There are a lot of legal things that go along with” why an employee under a cloud would be paid or not paid, or suspended rather than fired, she said. After a full investigation, “a lot of things will come to light.”

“We are listening,” board member Gloria Ramos said to the restive audience. “You may not like the results of everything. I don’t always like the results.”

Molina thanked all the speakers. Then she thanked her board colleagues for being able to “hash things out” in a closed session, which lasted about three hours. She also apologized “if there has been something in the past” the board should have handled differently.

In an earlier interview, Molina had credited Fernandez with stabilizing a school system on the verge of bankruptcy.

Contacted last week after the board placed him on leave, Fernandez said he was asked to step aside "while they conduct a review."

He added: "I'm just disappointed that I wasn't able to work out an agreement with them."

Fernandez could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Fernandez has said his 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 annual pension when he retires.

He also acknowledged his base salary has risen sharply. Factors that boosted his pay included automatic raises, stipends and bonuses.

Fernandez said he received the generous contract because he agreed to take control of the school system at a risky time.

Centinela is no longer rated as financially unstable, but students and parents complained Tuesday of a variety of issues at the meeting, including a shortage of textbooks.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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