County Superintendent of Schools: Should He Be Elected or Appointed?

Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Department of Education is again under fire.

One of the county’s biggest but least-known bureaucracies, the department for years has been assailed by grand juries that recently have gone so far as to call for its abolition.

School superintendents in Orange County characterize the department as irrelevant, its operations “archaic” and its leadership outdated. One, who wouldn’t let his name be used, said the department “isn’t worth a damn, and our district doesn’t need it. We can do fine without it.”

Yet, led for two decades by a former elementary school principal who has beaten back every election challenge, the department has weathered the criticism, sailing through an era of governmental belt tightening to emerge with a 1986 payroll of 800 employees and a yearly budget of $50 million.


‘Golden Opportunity’

This week, in the wake of the strongest grand jury attack to date, the department’s governing board gets what one of its members calls a “golden opportunity” to address the criticism.

At a special public meeting Thursday, the board will vote on whether a study is needed for a change in how the superintendent of schools is named. That issue has split the five-member board, said President Elizabeth Parker, who believes the latest grand jury report was well done.

That’s an unusual compliment, considering what the grand jury found.


The jurors employed a professional educational consulting firm that reported “universal criticism” of the county department among local school districts. The consultants added: “If the leadership of the department were valued, even in the context of disagreement on some specifics, we would have found some recognition of it. We found none. We found nothing but criticism, most of it extremely harsh.”

Among the jurors’ other findings about the department:

- Its mission is unclear.

- It doesn’t communicate well with local school districts.

- It’s of little help to districts that are trying to grapple with the tough education issues of the 1980s, such as how to handle AIDS cases.

- It runs an expensive videotape production operation that the local districts use only infrequently.

- It exaggerates attendance at its workshops.

A year ago, an earlier grand jury said bluntly: “There is no financial justification for the continuation of the Orange County Department of Education. . . .”


Earlier Reform Moves Have Withered

During the past 17 years, other grand juries have called for the abolishment of, or major changes within, the department. But no action has resulted, mainly because the public seems uninterested.

Because of its name, many people think that the Orange County Department of Education is in charge of all 28 local school districts in the county. This isn’t the case. The county department, in fact, has few powers. It provides transportation and schools for about 10% of the county’s handicapped children; it sponsors one of the county’s vocational training programs; it provides schools for juveniles in custody; it offers some day-care services for children before and after school; it serves as the auditing and payroll agency for the local school districts; it has a research library for educators, and it offers an array of workshops and training programs for teachers and administrators.

The department is thus part special-case school system and part middleman between the state and local school districts. Critics, including the 1984-85 grand jury, contend that local school districts don’t need this middleman and can do all the jobs the county department now does more efficiently. The county department, say such critics, should be abolished.

But the county department is a creature of state law; it would take an act of the Legislature to abolish it.

Key Issue on Agenda

State law does permit internal changes. One such change proposed by this year’s grand jury would be for the county to seek an appointed, rather than an elected, county superintendent of schools. That is the key issue before the Thursday special meeting of the Board of Education.

The professional education consulting firm, Programetrics Ltd., studied the role of the county superintendent. Its conclusion: “The requirements of an elected (superintendent) include satisfying constituencies whose interests are remote from those of professional educators. An appointed (superintendent), in contrast, could be limited to a professional educator whose credential would command respect among the local (school district) superintendents and who would not have to meet demands based on any other criteria. We therefore recommend that the position of Orange County superintendent become an appointed position. . . . “


One board member, Francis X. Hoffman, already has said he thinks it is futile to discuss the question of an appointed superintendent. “The voters would never give up the right to elect the superintendent, so I don’t want to take part in an exercise in futility,” Hoffman said.

He indirectly referred to the last time county voters had a referendum on whether there should be an appointed superintendent of schools. That was in 1978, and the voters rejected the proposal for an appointed superintendent by an 80% margin.

But the recent grand jury said the 1978 referendum didn’t have a chance because “an argument supporting the elected office was enclosed with the sample ballots mailed to all voters (but) there was no statement supporting an appointed office.”

The grand jury thus urged that the elected-or-appointed-superintendent issue again be studied.

Vote in 1988 Urged

The jurors said a blue-ribbon commission should be named and report back to the Board of Education “in a timely manner to allow a referendum to be submitted to the voters in 1988 in the event that the commission finds that the position (of superintendent) should be appointed.”

One man who is distinctly cool to the suggestion that the job be made appointive rather than elective is Robert D. Peterson, who has been the county superintendent of schools for the past 20 years.

“The Orange County voters would never go for such a change,” he said in a recent interview.

Whether the board itself will oppose the blue-ribbon commission idea is less certain, since some members told The Times they found merit in the grand jury’s latest report.

“I think the grand jury this year did a very good job,” said Parker, president of the board.

Hoffman agreed. “This report was well researched,” he said. “The report of the grand jury last year was just a hatchet job.”

Praise for the grand jury study is somewhat surprising in that the county school board members usually circle the wagons whenever there is an outside attack. Unlike all 28 Orange County school districts, the county board only has authority over the department’s budget. It has no direct control over the superintendent or the bureaucracy.

Wields Countywide Power

The real power is wielded by Peterson, who makes $87,300 a year and is elected by all county voters every four years. He is the czar of the Orange County Department of Education. He can, and does, hire and fire and set department policy independently of the board.

Peterson’s immediate job is not threatened by any of the proposed changes: he was reelected last June, without opposition, to another four-year term that expires in 1990. Whatever a study commission recommended, Peterson would complete that term.

Orange County, like all but five of California’s counties-Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Diego and Sacramento--has always had a powerful superintendent of schools and a weak county Board of Education. The weak elected board in Orange County has control over the budget for the Orange County Department of Education but no direct power in the department itself. The board also has little power over its superintendent.

Local school districts’ budgets and payrolls and expense accounts must be audited and approved by the county department--a function required by state law--but a central ingredient of the grand jury’s report was criticism of the department by the local superintendents. A Times survey of several superintendents found them reluctant to criticize on the record but candid if their names weren’t used.

Said one: “The county Department of Education isn’t worth a damn, and our district doesn’t need it. We can do fine without it. But if you were to quote me on the record, all I could tell you is that ‘we don’t use their services that much.’ ”

Critical Comments

Speaking anonymously to the grand jury’s consultant, the superintendents made several sharp criticisms. They described the county department’s structure as “archaic and bureaucratic,” they volunteered comments such as, “we don’t need the county office,” or “the county doesn’t touch our lives.”

The consultant reported that “several district superintendents said that the county superintendent is ‘not a leader’ and ‘not future oriented,’ ” and “some newer superintendents felt that there was an ‘old-boy network’ that was ‘impossible to crack.’ ”

Said one superintendent: “I’ve been a superintendent for (many) years and don’t know what they’re doing.”

Supt. John Nicoll of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, however, praised the county department and said he questioned the accuracy of the grand jury report. “I didn’t say anything critical to the consultant,” said Nicoll, who noted that the consultant’s report said there was “universal criticism” from all superintendents. “I think that (grand jury) report was misquoted or poorly presented,” he added.

The consultant’s report said the consensus clearly was that the superintendents had serious problems with the county department.

Said the grand jury consultant: “We found universal criticism of the county (superintendent of schools’ office) from its primary constituent group, namely the superintendents of the districts in the county. Regardless of whether or not the specifics of their criticisms are justified, it is clear that the leadership function of the (county) superintendent’s office and the Orange County Department of Education has little credibility in the local education community.”

Spending for Teaching

The money-handling function is one of the few duties of county departments of education not duplicated in one way or another by local school districts. But Peterson stresses that most of the department’s $50-million budget goes for direct education--the teaching of students who are not covered by local school districts.

The county department teaches about 10% of the county’s handicapped children. “These are usually the most difficult and expensive cases, the ones local districts don’t want to handle,” Peterson said.

The department also operates schools for juvenile offenders and a central-county regional occupation program (vocational training). The 1984-85 grand jury suggested, however, that even these educational programs could and should be absorbed by local school districts.

One target of grand jury criticism has been the Orange County Academic Decathlon. Launched in 1968 by Peterson, the decathlon, involving high school students competing against each other in academic subjects, is one of his fondest projects.

The 1985-86 grand jury said local school districts are unhappy with the decathlons because of unequal preparation for them by various schools. The grand jury called for the county department to issue regulations that will “ensure equitable academic competition” in the future decathlons.

In 1970, another grand jury also questioned the educational value of the decathlons.

In a recent, not-for-attribution interview with The Times, one local school district superintendent said: “There’s nothing wrong with the decathlons, but the central point is that they appeal to the achievers in school, the ones who are already winning awards. The decathlons don’t do anything to help the other kids.”

Critics ‘Don’t Understand’

Peterson, in rebuttal, has noted that the Academic Decathlons require teams with an equal mix of A students, B students and students who have C or below grade averages. “People who criticize the decathlon don’t understand how it works,” he said.

The 1985-86 grand jury challenged the value of the county Department of Education’s film and video library, which costs about $300,000 a year. The report said that many school districts said they plan “to decrease or discontinue use (of the county’s film-video library) and to build their own district video libraries.”

Peterson, however, has strongly defended the video library. He said that while the last grand jury report “was some improvement,” much of the previous criticism aimed at him and his department by grand juries is based on faulty information.

Although not a target of the current grand jury, among the controversies embroiling the county department in recent years was its 1982 purchase of a sprawling, 100,000-square-foot headquarters in Costa Mesa. The department spent $7.8 million for 9.5 acres of prime commercial property. Critics said the department was spending too much money.

“Why not utilize one or two vacant school sites instead of paying . . . for choice Orange County real estate?” demanded one critic, William C. Kohler, a former trustee of Saddleback Valley Unified School District. Then-county Board of Education President Jerry M. Shaw said, in rebuttal, that the county department’s land deal was “a smashing deal . . . too good to pass up.”