San Diego County Schools Superintendent Randy Ward will be placed on administrative leave as the school board launches a forensic audit to examine “concerns related to certain expenditures and compensation” for top education officials.
”As elected officials statutorily charged with the oversight of public monies, we must act prudently and in the best interest of the County Office of Education,” the board said in a release last week, which announced that an independent party would conduct the audit.
Turmoil has surrounded the San Diego County Office of Education for weeks. A lawsuit has been filed and another one threatened amid mounting accusations of fraud and mismanagement.
Even with two lame-duck trustees — and a third headed for a November run-off election — the five-member board is proceeding with changes to its bylaws in an effort to assume more power in an agency where most decisions are made by the superintendent.
What’s more, the board, with its fleeting members, is moving ahead with preparations to replace Ward, who announced he would retire next year.
Before the announcement of Ward’s leave and the audit, Paulette Donnellon and Mark Powell, who unseated incumbents Mark Anderson and Gregg Robinson in June, both criticized the board for pursuing significant changes before the new trustees take office.
A watchdog group is suing the superintendent and chief financial officer, accusing the two of taking raises illegally. On top of that, San Ysidro School District employees have filed a claim seeking wages and benefits they allegedly lost when the county office had financial oversight while it was was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Unavailable for comment, Ward took a vacation day Thursday following a tense board meeting Wednesday night. Trustees emerged from a closed session Wednesday to announce that although no action had been taken, a press release would be issued the next day. The board released the information Thursday without comment.
“I don’t think there should be action taken until the new board is seated,” said Donnellon, a member of the Escondido Union School District board who narrowly unseated Anderson with backing from charter-school advocates. “People are innocent until proven guilty and due process needs to play out.”
Attorney Cory Briggs, who is suing Ward and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lora Duzyk for the California Taxpayers Action Network, said an audit and paid leave for Ward would be appropriate.
“It protects the taxpayers, it protects the agency, and it protects the accused,” Briggs said. “You want a financial expert in there to trace the money — how was it supposed to be spent and how was it actually spent.” of the documents, they are the ones who can hit delete.”
In the lawsuit, Briggs alleges the superintendent paid himself illegal retroactive increases without going to the board and accuses him of conflict of interest, self-dealing and abuse of public office. A least $100,000 should be paid back to taxpayers, Briggs said.
According to the lawsuit, Ward illegally authorized salary boosts for senior managers, including Duzyk. Duzyk is accused of acting improperly in her role as chief financial officer.
Ward was hired as county superintendent in 2006 and signed a $265,000 contract, which has been amended over the years with retroactive salary increases that raised his base compensation to $331,736. In 2010, he took a 3.8 percent increase that the board had approved two years earlier but he opted to postpone.
Briggs said the lawsuit also takes aim at the structure and governance of county offices of education, which he said give superintendents too much authority.
A separate claim filed July 1 by attorney Michael Aguirre seeks wages and benefits San Ysidro employees allege they lost from 2013 to 2015 when the county office had financial oversight of the district while it was on the brink of bankruptcy.
At the time, Duzyk had been appointed by Ward to serve as San Ysidro’s fiscal advisor and was working with school officials to balance the district’s budget.
A precursor to a lawsuit, the claim accuses Ward and Duzyk of hiding money from the district to cover up its true fiscal condition. Members of the San Ysidro Education Association and California School Employees Association allege the two were intent on taking over the district.
San Ysidro was in negative certification at the time, meaning it did not have enough money to pay its bills in the current and subsequent two fiscal years. The status is determined by the district and confirmed by the county office, which oversees the budget matters of the county’s 42 school districts.
San Ysidro teachers went on strike in 2014 rather than accept pay cuts. They insisted there was money in a books-and-supplies account to prevent a strike and save the district’s finances.
The claim alleges teachers have learned “that SYSD officials have admitted they were directed by County Office of Education leadership to present the District’s budget in an extremely negative (an inaccurate) light during negotiations so as to mislead and deceive the Association.”
A grand jury report released in May found financial mismanagement that stretched back decades in the district, and accused the county office of shoddy oversight. In turn, the county office issued a statement that said the grand jury misunderstands the laws governing its role in providing financial oversight to school districts and, as a result, came to the wrong conclusions in assessing the adequacy and appropriateness of its oversight and guidance.
In the past year since new San Ysidro board members hired a new superintendent, the district has balanced its budget and given its educators and classified support staff raises.
The county board has been pushing for new bylaws that would give elected trustees more power to establish and fund programs, make personnel decisions and set salaries. Meanwhile, teachers, who represent about 10 percent of the agency’s workforce, are seeking more input in decisions.
With an annual operating budget of nearly $600 million, the San Diego County Office of Education offers support services — in the way of budget oversight, curriculum development and teacher training — to the region’s 42 school districts. The office also operates schools for foster youths, severely disabled students, the homeless and those in juvenile hall.