L.A. Now

High-paid South Bay schools superintendent is put on leave

A South Bay schools superintendent who attracted scrutiny for his $674,559 pay was placed on administrative leave this week, pending an internal investigation.

The Centinela Valley Union High School District board voted 5-0 to suspend Supt. Jose Fernandez during an abruptly called, closed-door meeting at the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts in Lawndale on Wednesday evening.

Fernandez's earnings last year surpassed the compensation of those leading the nation's largest school systems. New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina oversees the nation's largest district and makes $412,193. Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy made $393,106 last year running the nation's second-largest school system.

Fernandez's district has 6,600 high school students spread across three campuses and two small alternative programs.

The superintendent's compensation sparked widespread criticism when news of it first surfaced in articles in the Daily Breeze.

In March, Fernandez agreed to surrender a portion of his future compensation but did not specify an exact amount. In earlier interviews, he and school board President Maritza Molina said they hoped to work out a revised contract by the board meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

But pressure on district officials did not abate. Union and community leaders were discussing a recall election targeting the Board of Education.

"If they have finally seen the light and move to remove him, we might reassess the situation," teachers union President Jack Foreman said. Cesar Perez, the head of the union for non-teaching employees, said his organization also has considered participating in a recall.

Parents' reactions to Fernandez's earnings have included rage, confusion and moderate support.

"That's a lot of money," said Leuzinger High parent Nancy Damiani. However, she said, "the people who work under him are extremely competent. Could it be his leadership? I do see great things happening in the schools."

Fernandez's contract, which expires June 30, 2016, comes with strong job protections. Removing him without cause would require four votes of the five-member board. He also would receive 18 months' severance pay.

Notice of this week's meeting was posted online 24 hours before it began, according to the head of the teachers union and others.

The meeting began in public with Fernandez present, then moved into closed session for nearly three hours. By the time the board emerged, Fernandez had departed. Board members made no comment other than to announce that the superintendent would be placed on paid leave, according to those at the meeting.

The board has not named an interim replacement.

Fernandez, reached Thursday morning, said the board asked him to step down "while they conduct a review." He added: "I'm just disappointed that I wasn't able to work out an agreement with them."

Assistant Supt. Bob Cox, authorized to speak for the school system, said that the board took its action "pending an investigation" but that the board offered no further details.

Board members could not be reached or declined to be interviewed Thursday. All five either voted for the contract or approved updates to it.

In a March 19 interview, Molina credited Fernandez with stabilizing a school system on the verge of bankruptcy, but added that the reaction to his compensation "starts making us aware, reflecting on what we're doing."

She gave Fernandez an overall grade of B+: "There's always room for improvement."

Fernandez said his 2013 compensation was inflated by a one-time supplement of $230,000 that he used to buy seniority in state retirement systems. That action will allow him to collect a higher annual pension when he retires. Other factors that boosted his pay included automatic raises, stipends and bonuses.

But he also acknowledged that his base salary has risen sharply. He received the generous contract, he said, because he agreed to take control of the school system at a risky time. Centinela is no longer rated as financially unstable.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World