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County Schools Chief Thrives in Job Despite His Critics’ Best Shots

Times Staff Writer

When Robert D. Peterson was a young pilot during World War II, his B-17 was shot down over Austria in December, 1943.

“I became a prisoner of war,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Ultimately, I was sent to Barth, Germany, to Stalag Luft One. I was a POW for about a year and a half.”

Those wartime survival skills probably have been valuable for the man who has been Orange County’s superintendent of schools for the past 20 years. Virtually from his first year in office, critics have assailed him or the county Department of Education, of which he is the supreme commander.

In 1969, three years after he took office, Peterson feuded with some members of the county Board of Education--the five-member body that has budget control, but little else, over his elected job. Some on the board were displeased that Peterson was taking the unusual step of conducting his own opinion surveys about education among clientele in barber shops. Critics charged that the surveys were slanted and were part of Peterson’s conservative bent; the critics noted that Peterson previously was leading assaults on school texts that he found too liberal, and on sex education, which he found offensive.

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In 1969, Peterson also raised eyebrows when he instituted a dress code for Department of Education workers. The code was non-specific but said that “it is suggested that attire never be extreme but always be moderate and appropriate at all times.”

The 1969 Orange County Grand Jury criticized Peterson’s operation of his department, recommending that his job become appointive, rather than elective. In 1970, a new grand jury recommended that his position be abolished altogether.

In 1971, yet another grand jury agreed that Peterson’s job should be ended, and it specified functions of the county Department of Education that it said could be taken over and performed better by other school districts or county departments.

Public Counterattack

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Peterson publicly counterattacked the 1971 grand jury. He accused the panel of “unprofessional comment,” and he said he would give it an “F” grade for its “flimsy” report.

Peterson, now 65, has come under repeated criticism for failing to get along with the county’s other school leaders.

In 1973, a study by the county administrative office said that Peterson’s stewardship of the Department of Education was causing communication problems with leaders in local school districts, and causing a high employee turnover in the county department.

In 1975, the county grand jury accused Peterson of having a “policy and practice of educational isolationism . . . in the operation of the office (of county superintendent).” That grand jury also roasted one of Peterson’s pet projects, the Academic Decathlon for high school students that he launched as an annual competition in the late 1960s. The 1975 grand jury called the competition “largely a public relations instrument and without educational merit.”

Calls Methods Defective

Peterson, in rebuttal, said that the grand jury used defective methods of research and had “no baseline” in reaching its conclusions.

In 1985, when yet another grand jury accused the county Department of Education of being a waste of time and money, a visibly angry Peterson held a press conference at the county Hall of Administration. Peterson called the panel’s report “totally erroneous.”

When the 1986 grand jury report this summer criticized his department and suggested that his job be made appointive rather than elective, Peterson was less combative than the year before. Peterson said this report had been better researched and prepared, and “was some improvement” from previous grand juries.

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Again this year, Peterson’s leadership has been criticized. A consultant retained by the grand jury reported--after numerous interviews with people who deal with Peterson--that he has “a leadership style which is not appropriate to a professional organization.”

Despite all the criticism over the past 20 years, Peterson has survived--and thrived. He has easily trounced all opponents who have challenged him in the countywide races for superintendent of schools. This year no one even tried: He was unopposed on the ballot as he won a four-year extension of his job.

Opposed Board’s Attempts

Peterson knows that he operates from strength at the polls. He has thus lambasted previous critics, and he has opposed attempts over the years to turn his elective office into an appointive one filled by the county Board of Education.

“When the people elect both their county superintendent and county Board of Education, a check-and-balance system operates,” Peterson said in 1978. That year, county voters had a ballot proposition that called for making the county superintendent of schools an appointive office. It lost overwhelmingly, with 355,526 voting against it and only 83,929 favoring it.

This year’s grand jury said that the 1978 proposition failed because voters didn’t get enough information about the merits of having an appointed education superintendent.

But Peterson, in an interview, said he is absolutely convinced that people in Orange County will never give up their right to elect a superintendent of schools.

“The voters rejected a proposal for an appointive superintendent just last fall in Riverside County,” Peterson said. “Orange County voters are very similar to those in Riverside. Orange County voters feel strongly about their schools, and they’re not going to give up their right to elect their superintendent.”

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Soft-Spoken and Cordial

Peterson, though capable of answering his critics harshly, has a soft-spoken, cordial demeanor. In most day-to-day activities, he is the quintessential Southern gentleman. Born in Laurel, Miss., he was raised in Louisiana and still retains the accent of the Deep South.

After serving as a pilot and flight officer in the Air Force during World War II, Peterson completed his bachelor’s degree at Whittier College and also earned his master’s degree there.

He was a sixth-grade teacher in Santa Ana Unified School District in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. A member of the Air Force Reserve at the time, he was recalled to active duty. He was assigned as an ROTC instructor at the University of Colorado. Between teaching duties he completed his doctorate in education there.

In 1955, he returned to Santa Ana Unified and was assigned as an elementary school principal. He left that post in 1966 when he was elected county superintendent of schools

“I had been urged to run in 1962 and declined, and when a number of people again urged me to run in 1966, I took some time off and studied it and decided it would be a very fine challenge to try to accomplish some of the things I thought should be done in education,” Peterson said.

For two decades, Peterson’s critics have been wishfully predicting that he would retire at the end of each four-year term. He has confounded them by choosing to run for reelection each time.

He will be 69 when his current four-year term expires in 1990. Will he retire then?

Said Peterson: “I’m in good health, and I have some new programs I’d like to make sure get the attention they need. So I’m not at all sure this will be my last term.”


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