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Grand Jury Criticizes Education Department

Times Staff Writer

While making no findings of illegality or misuse of money, the Orange County Grand Jury issued a lengthy report Tuesday criticizing management of the Orange County Department of Education, its budgetary process and its pay for upper management.

In its 39-page report, the grand jury said it decided 6 months ago to look into the department’s management practices after disabled students found there were no buses to take them to the department’s special schools last fall because the department had run out of money. Board members were furious that Supt. Robert Peterson had not notified them of the shortfall.

Peterson praised the grand jury’s report Tuesday, saying it was “fair and objective.”

“They found no illegalities, or anything in the way of despicable operations,” Peterson said. “That’s a comfort to me and the county Board” of Trustees.

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Center of Controversy

But trustee Francis X. Hoffman said he thought the report could go a long way in curbing the powers of Peterson, who has been at the center of controversy several times during his 22 years as head of the department.

“It says the board has to take a more active role in order to balance the powers of the superintendent more effectively,” Hoffman said.

“Presently, we’ve got a situation where the superintendent is exercising practically dictatorial powers over the entire department, and I don’t think that’s what was initially conceived” when county departments of education were set up.

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The grand jury criticized the way the department had been dipping into its reserve funds with more frequency in the past few years. This year, the department has a $66.3-million budget and 900 full- and part-time employees. During the past 5 years, the report noted, the department’s expenditures have increased by 33%, but revenue has only increased by 26%.

The grand jury recommended that the board “direct the superintendent to halt the depletion of the fund balance.”

The report also found that Peterson’s base salary is $10,000 above the average for superintendents of other county departments of comparable size. Deputy superintendent salaries were $13,000 above the average, and assistant superintendents $6,000 above the average.

Peterson’s salary is “around $90,000,” said board Trustee Dean McCormick.

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The grand jury recommended that the department commission an independent study on compensation for upper management.


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