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County Schools Chief May Face Reelection Test

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Whittier College education professor, using a novel appeal to area school district superintendents, is quietly testing the waters for a bid to unseat controversial longtime Orange County Supt. of Schools Robert D. Peterson.

The professor, John F. Dean of Newport Beach, last week sent a sharply worded letter to the superintendents of every Orange County school district, asking for their support and advice on a possible race against Peterson, a frequent target of county grand jury management investigations who recently announced his intention to seek a seventh term.

“Dr. Robert Peterson has announced that he will seek a seventh term, and many of us had hoped he would not run again,” Dean, 63, said in his letter. “As long as Bob is at the helm, Orange County schools will never have the qualified leadership we need desperately.”

If Dean proceeds with his campaign plans, a decision he said he will make within the next month or so, he likely will face an uphill struggle.

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Peterson, who is paid $98,663 annually to supervise the $60-million-a-year operation, has held the superintendent’s post for more than 20 years. Although he often has run into controversy over management of the department, he has deftly turned back several attempts to push him from office. A school principal in Santa Ana before winning election as superintendent in 1966, Peterson hasn’t faced serious opposition in more than a decade.

Recognizing that he would enter the race as an underdog, Dean said he hopes a unique plank in his campaign platform will strengthen his chances. Besides announcing his possible candidacy, Dean’s letter also proposes changing the nature of the superintendent’s post, making it an appointed position rather than an elected one.

“I may well be the only political candidate in history pledged to eliminate his job,” Dean said in his letter.

County grand juries have recommended the same thing--one even suggested abolishing the county Education Department altogether. But county voters have twice rejected the idea.

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Dean, chairman of Whittier’s education department for 19 years, said Tuesday that he has received responses from three area superintendents so far: “Two of them urged me to go ahead, and one warned me that Peterson can’t be beat.”

Peterson, 69, has leaned on his solid support from some conservative backers to easily rebuff challengers over the years. But while he has built a strong political base, Peterson has also irritated some district superintendents, who complain that area schools do not receive enough services from the county office. Some also grouse that Peterson has not kept abreast of developments in education.

Privately, many district superintendents, who are appointed by their school boards, say they support changing the county superintendent’s post to an appointed one.

An education consultant hired by a 1986 grand jury found what it called “universal criticism” of the county department among local school districts. That report--which also said the county department failed to communicate with local districts, ran an expensive videotape operation that was used infrequently and mismanaged other functions--suggested that the superintendent be appointed rather than elected.

In an interview Tuesday, Peterson said he was surprised by Dean’s exploratory challenge, but confidently predicted that it would not topple him from office.

“He would be swimming upstream,” Peterson said, adding that he expects to spend about $60,000 on his reelection campaign. He predicted it would cost any opponent twice that just to establish comparable name recognition.

Dean, who worked as a public school administrator in Newport Beach for 20 years before moving to Whittier College, agreed with Peterson’s assessment.

“It’s going to take a lot of money. And I would guess that 100,000 is about right,” he said, adding that he will explore fund-raising possibilities in the coming weeks before making up his mind about the campaign.

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