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Once Quiet Education Election Is Now a Race : Schools: County superintendent occupies a nonpartisan office, but this year’s contest, unlike past years, is developing political overtones.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until six weeks ago, the June 7 election for the Ventura County superintendent of schools was shaping up to be the same as every other race for the job over the past 50 years: uncontested and mostly unnoticed.

Supt. Charles Weis began months ago to gather signatures and garner contributions for the campaign.

But no one was running against him and it appeared Weis, who was appointed to the job last year, would win the election without a contest, just as his predecessors have done since at least the 1940s.

Then, on the last possible date for candidates to file, Dan Flynn, principal of the county’s schools for juvenile offenders, decided to run for his boss’s job.

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And now the election for county superintendent is turning into a high-profile battle.

The county superintendent’s office, an arm of the state Department of Education, provides advice, equipment and instructional materials to teachers and administrators in the county’s 20 local school districts.

The county superintendent also directly runs 13 schools for special education students and youths who are in trouble with the law.

It is a nonpartisan office and, supposedly, a nonpartisan election.

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But Flynn is a registered Republican, Weis a registered Democrat, and the race is developing political overtones.

Flynn has attracted the support of some of the county’s Republican leaders: Rep. Elton Gallegly and state Sen. Cathie Wright, both of Simi Valley, and Assemblyman Nao Takasugi of Oxnard.

Flynn spoke recently at a Republican women’s forum and is scheduled to appear at the next meeting of the local branch of the Christian Coalition, an organization run by televangelist Pat Robertson.

And many of his proposals are aligned with conservative causes.

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He agrees with conservative groups who have called for an immediate halt to the new California Learning Assessment System exams.

Although he opposed last year’s Proposition 174 school-voucher initiative as fiscally unfeasible, Flynn said he favors some sort of tuition tax credits to families with children in private school. He sends four of his six young children to a private parochial school in Westlake.

And he echoes conservatives who criticize the public education system for putting too much money into administration and too little into classrooms. Flynn said that if elected he will ask the county school board for a 15% cut in the superintendent’s $112,000 annual salary.

“The position does not warrant that salary, period,” he said.

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He also said he would not spare cuts elsewhere in the county superintendent’s 380-employee office.

Flynn would slash the office’s $28.5-million annual budget by one-quarter, eliminating staff members in departments that serve local school districts and replacing them with contracted independent consultants. Also, Flynn said he could save by having some of the county’s larger school districts provide services to small school districts that now come from the county superintendent’s office.

His goal, Flynn said, is to funnel money back into the classroom, though Weis said any savings from the county superintendent’s office would go back to the state for dispersal among all of California’s public schools.

The 42-year-old Flynn downplays his Republican ties, pointing out that he served as an aide to his brother, a former Democratic state legislator in New Jersey, and that he was himself a registered Democrat until a couple of years ago.

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One of his supporters, conservative political consultant Steve Frank, agreed that it’s not an issue of political partisanship.

“It’s Weis’ values versus the values of Flynn,” Frank said. “Flynn is more parent- and student-oriented and Weis is more oriented to the department of education and their systems.”

The support for Flynn is a measure of “the frustration of the community with the education system,” Frank said.

Flynn and Weis have both spent most of their careers in the public schools.

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But Flynn and his supporters emphasize that most of Flynn’s 17 years in public education have been spent as a classroom teacher or principal, while Weis has worked mainly as an administrator.

“Chuck has been a career administrator,” Flynn said. “I’ve been in a classroom and on-site.”

Flynn began as a teacher in New Jersey in 1974. He moved to the Conejo Valley in 1981 when he took a teaching position with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, where he worked in various jobs until he became principal of Ventura County’s schools for juvenile offenders in 1991.

And he has won praise for his performance as principal.

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County school board member Juanita Sanchez-Valdez said she is not endorsing anyone in the race, but is impressed by some of the programs Flynn has launched for the troubled youths under his tutelage.

Flynn started a science fair at his schools because students in the juvenile court system are not allowed to participate in the county science fair. And he also reorganized schedules at the schools to give the students less independent study time and more hours under the guidance of teachers.

“I always had this affinity to deal with the downtrodden and the underdog,” Flynn said.

Unlike Flynn, Weis has never worked as a classroom teacher, except as an undergraduate teaching assistant while he was at UCLA. He served four years in the late 1980s as a principal of two schools in the Fillmore Unified School District, but spent the other 16 years of his career as either an administrator or educational consultant.

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He left Fillmore in 1990 when county Supt. James F. Cowan appointed Weis as his assistant superintendent.

But it is not only the 43-year-old Weis’ lack of teaching experience that leads to criticism that he is a bureaucrat out of touch with children and parents. It’s also the way Weis became county superintendent.

Less than three years after Weis joined the county superintendent’s office, Cowan decided to retire and recommended that the county school board appoint Weis to finish the rest of Cowan’s term.

The move ignited a protest from the Latino Coalition for Fair Representation, which argued that the board should open the appointment process to allow Latinos to apply.

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Although Weis got the job, the protests focused attention on the historic lack of competition for the county superintendent’s position.

Cowan held the job for 24 years and ran unopposed in all of his five elections. And like Weis, Cowan did not have to run for the job in the first place. He was appointed at the recommendation of his predecessor, Dean E. Triggs, who resigned in the middle of his term in 1969 because of illness, his widow, Jewel Triggs, said.

Triggs had held the position for 25 years. And he had always run unopposed.

The pattern goes back further.

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Triggs first got the job in 1944 when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of W. C. (Kirk) Cobb, who left office to take a position in Sacramento, Jewel Triggs said.

County election records for prior years were not immediately available.

But the knowledge that the superintendent’s office has not had a contested race since at least 1942 has galvanized Flynn and his campaign.

“They hand it off like a baton in a relay race,” political consultant Steve Frank said. “What I would call them is hand-me-down office-holders.”

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Even Weis’ supporters said they are glad there is a candidate running against him, opening up the political process.

Vincent Ruiz, a retired union leader and former Ventura Unified School District board member, was spokesman for the Latino coalition that opposed Weis’ appointment last January.

Now, Ruiz said, he is happy there is a contested election. But he supports Weis for the job.

“Chuck is doing a good job,” Ruiz said. “He’s visible to us and accessible.”

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Ruiz is a member of the Tri-Counties Labor Council, a coalition of labor organizations that has endorsed Weis. The local branch of the California Teachers Assn. has also thrown its support behind the incumbent.

In addition to receiving support from school board members around the county, Weis has endorsements from 16 of the county’s 19 school district superintendents, business leaders, various City Council members such as Charlotte Craven of Camarillo, Ventura County Treasurer Hal Pittman and county Supervisor Susan K. Lacey.

Weis said he has not sought partisan support. Lacey, a Democrat, said she was unaware of Weis’ political affiliation. Rather, she said she has been impressed by his accomplishments in education, including helping to launch a county commission to coordinate private and public children’s services. “He’s a team player, he has a positive attitude. He looks for ways to solve problems and that’s what we need.”

She also praised Weis for his leadership in developing Casa Pacifica, the Camarillo home for abused and neglected children scheduled to open later this summer.

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As for Weis, he rejects the accusation by Flynn supporters that he is a staid bureaucrat who is slavish to the state Department of Education’s mandates to local schools.

“I don’t see myself as part of the old guard,” he said. “I’m not the typical status quo administrator.”

Weis counters that he is adamantly opposed to centralized control of schools and firmly favors local governance.

He supports the concept of the California Learning Assessment System exams, but believes counties and local school districts should be responsible for administering their own versions of the tests.

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The state, he said, should get out of the testing business and instead only monitor how local school districts assess their students.

Like Flynn, Weis opposes school vouchers. But he and Flynn differ on their proposals for the county superintendent’s office.

Weis said he believes his salary, which is set by the county school board, fairly reflects the position’s level of responsibility.

And he criticized Flynn’s proposal to slash 25% from the office’s budget. Such a cut would ultimately cost local districts more money than it would save, he said.

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Any money that the county superintendent’s office would save by cutting programs would go back to the state, which disperses the funds among California’s roughly 1,000 school districts, Weis said.

But local Ventura County school districts would have to foot the bill themselves for services such as curriculum support that were no longer offered by the county.

On some issues, however, Weis and Flynn agree.

They both emphasize school safety, proposing that all local school districts form committees of parents, community members and young people to suggest ways, such as requiring student uniforms, to boost campus security in their communities.

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And both are risking substantial amounts of their own money to win the election.

Weis is pouring in $20,000 of his own money and expects to spend $40,000. Flynn is investing $15,000 from his own pockets and his campaign workers say they will at least match whatever Weis spends.

Profile of Dan Flynn

Born: April 21, 1952

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Occupation: Principal of Ventura County’s schools for juvenile offenders; former teacher.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in social studies (political science major) from Trenton State College in Trenton, N.J.; master’s degree in special education from the University of San Francisco; working on dissertation for Ph.D. in education from USC.

Background: Taught junior high and high school for three years in New Jersey and served as an assistant director of student affairs at the State University of New York. Moved to California in 1981, taking a job as a teacher for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. He held various teaching and administrative positions with that department before becoming principal of Ventura County’s juvenile court schools in 1991.

Quote: “I try to put on a good front, but it is intimidating running against your boss.”

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Profile of Charles Weis

Born: May 2, 1950

Occupation: Ventura County Superintendent of Schools.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA; master’s degree in educational psychology from Cal State Northridge; Ph.D. in education from UC Santa Barbara.

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Background: Served as an independent educational consultant in Fillmore from 1973-80; joined the Fillmore Unified School District staff in 1980 as a director of special services and later served as a high school and elementary school principal and as assistant superintendent. In 1990, he was appointed assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the county schools’ office, a job he held until his appointment as superintendent in January, 1993.

Quote: “I’m trying to help principals and teachers get a consumer-oriented approach. We need to treat parents the same way Nordstrom treats its customers: The customer is always right.”


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