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School Districts, County May Spar Over Grant Bid : Funding: A battle with administrators could erupt if Board of Education votes against applying for federal money to run job-training program.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until this week, the leaders of Ventura County’s 20 local school districts and the community college district have paid little attention to decisions made by the Ventura County Board of Education.

With its limited authority--supervising 2,000 students in special education programs and performing routine administrative functions--the county board has rarely influenced decisions made at regular schools.

But this week the county board will decide whether to approve an application for a $500,000 federal job-training grant--a vote that will affect at least 50,000 students in 17 high schools, 10 continuation schools and the county’s three community colleges.

Three trustees on the five-member board, Angela N. Miller, Wendy Larner and Marty Bates, have expressed reservations about pursuing the grant on grounds it gives too much control of the program to the federal government. If they vote against it, a collision course with educators countywide will be set, officials said.

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“If they are interfering with local boards, then I think we’ve got a problem,” said Joseph Spirito, head of the 15,800-student Ventura Unified School District. “I don’t think they should be doing that.”

A veto, said Simi Valley Unified School District board member Debbie Sandland, would mean that the county board is unilaterally killing a project that has wide support in the area’s education community.

“If they want to undermine what we are trying to do, that is a serious threat,” Sandland said.

Some of the county’s leading educators are so concerned they are talking about sending delegations to the Board of Education’s Monday meeting to persuade it to vote in favor of the grant.

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And they are discussing ways to go around the county board on future education projects.

“In the past, we have tried to work cooperatively on these funds,” said Mary Beth Wolford, superintendent of the Simi Valley Unified School District. “But maybe we will have to apply on our own the next time.”

Bates said the county school board is only doing what it is supposed to do. One of its duties is to provide fiscal oversight on budgetary matters for all of the county’s school districts, Bates said.

“They’re welcome to apply for their own grants,” he said. “They have to run their board and we have to run ours.”

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Larner said she, too, has legitimate concerns. She is worried that the program, called the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, will give the federal government too much control in local schools.

In Ventura County, high school seniors would serve six-week internships at jobs of their choice. Lawyers, dentists and oil drillers would come to classrooms to talk about their work, and students could shadow other workers for a day.

In addition, a one-stop center where employers and students could find job information, materials about job training and help with writing resumes would be created.

Miller and Larner have already said they intend to vote against the grant. Bates last week said he is still gathering information and will not make a final decision until the issue comes to the board for the Monday vote.

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The board will meet at 6 p.m. in the county superintendent of schools office on Verdugo Way in Camarillo.

President Clinton signed legislation last year that provided $15 million in federal incentives for 1995-96 for schools to create programs that would introduce all students--not just those in designated vocational courses--to post-high school careers.

One goal of the program is to improve coordination between community college districts and local school districts so that the transition from high school to college is easier. High school seniors, for instance, could take a Spanish class or a mechanics lab and get college credit for it.

The three colleges, slated to receive a combined $60,000, will also develop and offer a career-path certificate, which certifies a student has completed one year of course work and credits in a particular field and will provide on-the-job internships, officials said.

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In addition, college instructors will provide two-day training seminars for primary and secondary teachers on ways to include career awareness in lesson plans.

High schools were required to design a proposed course and submit an application to the federal government for a portion of the funds. Ventura County educators joined together to do that and designated the county superintendent of schools office as the local agent responsible for applying for and administering the funds.

It is a strategy that is frequently employed to save time and dollars, said Jacquie Richardson, a Simi Valley education consultant.

“One central office, applying for the benefit of all, is better than having districts compete against each other and only one comes out the winner,” she said. “It is a pragmatic approach.”

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The state Department of Education ranked Ventura County’s application eighth out of 43 submitted statewide. If approved, the grant would provide $500,000 for the first year and as much as $2.5 million over a five-year period, officials said.

But if the county school board declines the application, educators will have to scramble to find some other administrative body willing to take on its role, said county Supt. of Schools Charles Weis. That could be either a school district or the community college district, he said.

Any delay, however, could jeopardize the entire grant, Weis said. Federal officials look for any reason to turn down an applicant because there is so much competition, he said, adding that he hopes the county board takes that into consideration when it makes its decision Monday.

“I don’t believe the local school districts ever thought the county Board of Education would overturn their decisions in local education matters,” he said. “That is not the purpose of the county board.”

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It is not the first time trustees have raised the ire of some in the community. Larner and Miller recently survived a recall attempt by a group outraged over their votes in March to exclude AIDS Care and Planned Parenthood representatives from teacher training sessions.

The conservative majority is also often criticized by public speakers at meetings as attempting to push a right-wing, Christian agenda. But Bates said he, for one, always considers each issue on its own merits before making a decision.

And he will do that Monday night, Bates said.

“This is a budgetary matter and it has to go through our board,” he said. “If in fact we had nothing to say about it, then it would not be in front of us.”

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