The State Board of Education escalated its battle with state schools’ chief Bill Honig on Friday by voting to file a lawsuit asking the California Supreme Court to decide how much authority the board has over educational policy.
After a closed-door meeting from which Honig was excluded, the board voted 6 to 3 to hire a Sacramento law firm “to resolve the governance issues between the State Board of Education and the state superintendent of public instruction.”
For several months, some board members, led by board President Joseph D. Carrabino, have been feuding with Honig over control of the Department of Education budget, high-level departmental appointments and board approval of directives that Honig sends to the state’s 1,000 school districts.
“We have changed our behavior” in several disputed governance areas, Honig told the board earlier Friday. “As far as I know, we have never failed to give you any piece of information you have asked us for.”
But Carrabino and board members Joseph Stein of Indian Wells and Gertie B. Thomas of Hayward disagreed. They said Honig continued to be uncooperative and “arrogant” in dealing with the board.
In June, Carrabino, acting at the board’s direction, hired the law firm of Zumbrun, Best & Findley to litigate the governance dispute. The lawyers also are key members of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservatively oriented public interest legal group.
The agreement with the board allows the law firm to bill up to $150,000 in the 1991-92 fiscal year, but the source of funds is in doubt. Honig contends that the board has no authority to hire its own lawyers, so he has refused to process the contract or pay the law firm.
After a rancorous exchange, Stein asked the board to ratify the legal agreement and to hold a closed-door session to decide whether to sue Honig to obtain more decision-making authority.
Honig and Joseph R. Symkowick, the education department’s general counsel, said the closed session was in violation of the state’s open meeting law.
Honig said later that the board move will be expensive, that he doubts that the Supreme Court will agree to hear the dispute and that the action “diverts energy and attention from the reform movement that is under way. . . . The governor and the business community are on board but some members of our own board want to waste their time and energy on what is essentially a diversion.”
The six votes to sue were the bare majority of the 11-member board needed to act and indicated that the anti-Honig group within the board may be dwindling in numbers.
Some observers speculated that the anti-Honig forces acted this month because they still have a board majority but might not have one after Carrabino’s term expires in January.
A key vote was cast by the student board member, Paul Kim, a 17-year-old Modesto high school senior, who was attending only his second board meeting and who did not explain his reasons for siding with the Carrabino group.
The three “no” votes were cast by Kathryn Dronenburg of El Cajon, Benjamin F. Montoya of Roseville and Marion McDowell of San Carlos. One other member, Kenneth Peters of Beverly Hills, was absent and the 11th position on the board is vacant.
“This is real unfortunate,” Dronenburg said after the vote was announced. “There are a lot of real educational issues we ought to be dealing with and this isn’t one of them.”
These sentiments were echoed by Maureen DiMarco, Gov. Pete Wilson’s secretary for child development and education, who said, “Continued warfare between these parties is not in the best interests of California kids.”