Richard Riordan, California's newly appointed secretary for education, is exploring the possibility of also becoming president of the State Board of Education as a way to further his and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's influence over school policy and to press their reform ideas.
The former Los Angeles mayor recently discussed the concept of holding the two posts with several high-ranking state education officials, including the board's current president, Reed Hastings, who said he told Riordan that "it would be a great idea."
It remains unclear whether Riordan could legally hold both positions without conflicts of interest. A close advisor to Riordan said the secretary is waiting for a legal opinion before asking Schwarzenegger to appoint him to the second post.
Riordan acknowledged that he is looking at the dual positions but has not made up his mind. "I've had really top people tell me it's a great idea. I've had top people tell me it's not a great idea," he said.
The main attraction would be to streamline the bureaucracy and "empower the governor," he said.
Echoing Schwarzenegger's campaign promises, Riordan said he wants to foster more local control of schools.
Riordan hopes to accomplish that partly by giving principals greater authority over budgets and personnel, a departure from the top-down education reforms promoted by the last two governors.
"I don't think that coming up with mandates from Washington or Sacramento does anything. There's no such thing as a silver bullet," Riordan said. "It's management, management, management. It's power and responsibility at the local level that changes things."
A Schwarzenegger spokesman would not comment on the possibility of Riordan joining the state education board because, he said, Riordan had not yet raised the subject with the governor.
"The governor appointed Mayor Riordan to be secretary [for] education because of his respect for his long-standing efforts to improve education for the children of California," said spokesman Vincent Sollitto. "He certainly looks forward to recommendations, policy proposals and advice that he will provide."
Schwarzenegger can quickly fill up to seven slots on the 11-member board that are either vacant; filled by members, including President Hastings, whose terms expire in January; or by those who were appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis but not yet confirmed by the Senate. The board members choose their own president every year, but gubernatorial appointees rarely go against a governor's wishes on such positions.
Hastings said the issue of Riordan joining the board came up in a recent meeting at the secretary's Brentwood home.
Hastings said he asked Riordan about Sacramento scuttlebutt that the former mayor wanted to be board president. Riordan said he was thinking about it and asked Hastings his opinion, according to Hastings.
"I encouraged him to do it," said Hastings, an Internet entrepreneur who was a major contributor to Davis. "It would be advantageous for the administration to have a single focal point on education, which would then be him. I think it would be a great idea."
Hastings said he did not think that the dual posts would present any conflicts of interest because they both help create policy. "I don't see conflict between the roles. I see alignment between the roles," said Hastings, who hopes to be reappointed in January to the board by Schwarzenegger.
The secretary for education is a full-time Cabinet-level executive appointed by the governor, and is the governor's chief advisor on education policy and his education liaison with the Legislature.
Board of Education members, who must be confirmed by the state Senate to their four-year terms, are unpaid part-timers. They meet every other month to set education policy for California's 8,000 public schools, such as approving textbooks and deciding to delay the state's high school exit exam.
The situation is further complicated because the state also has an elected superintendent of public instruction, Jack O'Connell, who oversees the state Department of Education and implements the policies of the state education board and the Legislature.
O'Connell said that it would be difficult for Riordan to fill both posts, given the demands of each.
"Being an effective secretary is a full-time job," O'Connell said. "I think it would be a real challenge."
Riordan's idea of joining the state board is a variation on a well-worn theme.
Lawmakers, hoping to clear up the confusing lines of authority in the education bureaucracy, have proposed turning the state education board into an advisory panel for the secretary for education, who then would have more policy power. That change, if enacted, would take effect in 2006.
What remains uncertain, however, is whether Riordan can legally join the board and become its president.
A spokesman for the state attorney general's office would not comment, saying that the agency may be called upon to issue an opinion in the matter. But the agency cited a 1940 state Supreme Court case that laid out guidelines for such cases. The rules say that a public official who holds two public offices simultaneously may have a conflict if that official faces a "significant clash of duties or loyalties between the offices."
Robert Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said he knew of no explicit ban on the possible two-post idea for Riordan.
But he questioned the wisdom of such an arrangement. "If the state board is supposed to be giving independent advice, how can it [do so] when you have the governor's education secretary sitting on it?" Stern asked.
Stern said that such a dual role could solidify both Schwarzenegger's power over education and the position of Riordan, a self-styled schools reformer who was actively involved in Los Angeles school politics when he was mayor.
Riordan recruited and supported several reform-minded candidates for the Los Angeles school board in two successive elections in 1999 and 2001, beating out candidates backed by the teachers union.
This spring, however, three of the candidates he backed lost as union-supported candidates regained a school board majority.
Riordan is taking other steps to promote his ideas about statewide school reform.
He is creating an informal committee of business executives, school superintendents, teachers and others to serve as his own "kitchen cabinet," as one advisor called it.
Riordan said he expects the group to include several longtime associates and friends, including UCLA business professor and education expert Bill Ouchi, Occidental College President Theodore Mitchell and Santa Monica College President Piedad Robertson. Ouchi and others have championed local control of schools.
"As the principal goes, so a school goes," said Riordan, who promoted similar ideas in his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for governor last year. "A good principal can raise the level of competence of all the teachers and magically get rid of all the bad teachers."
But giving principals greater authority over personnel is certain to meet resistance from teachers unions in many districts, whose contracts protect the seniority of instructors and curtail the rights of principals to hire and fire as they choose.
The California Teachers Assn. had wanted the new governor to eliminate the education secretary position. As for the possibility of more local control, association spokeswoman Becky Zoglman said the union would not object as long as teachers were included in decision-making.