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Centinela appoints interim replacement for highly paid schools chief

Centinela school district officials Tuesday appointed a veteran administrator as interim leader, pending an investigation of Supt. Jose Fernandez, who was paid $674,559 last year.

Fernandez was placed on paid leave last week.

For now, the Centinela Valley Union High School District will be managed by Bob Cox, who had been serving as the assistant superintendent for human resources. The board announced its action after meeting nearly three hours in closed session.

Fernandez's earnings last year to manage a school system of 6,600 students spread across three high schools and two small alternative programs surpassed the compensation of those leading the nation's three largest school systems.

Union leaders representing teachers and non-teaching personnel protested the choice of Cox, saying he was too closely associated with Fernandez.

Board members responded that Cox would serve only until a longer-term interim leader could be selected.

The board also voted to change its own leadership. Board President Maritza Molina stepped down, and Hugo M. Rojas II was elected by fellow board members to serve in her place.

The board's actions did not placate students, parents, employees and community members who attended Tuesday's meeting at the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts in Lawndale.

"I feel they’re all a part of it," said parent Olga Leyva-Garcia in an interview.

"It looks like the board knew what it was doing. Fernandez didn’t do it by himself," said Leyva-Garcia, whose son is in 10th grade.

Fernandez is "suspended, but he’s still getting paid,” said Hawthorne High senior Jonathan Alexander. “I don’t know why.”

Gregory Fuller, 58, was laid off in 2011 after the district decided to save money by making a second year of high school physical education optional. That and other budget cuts occurred during a statewide economic recession, but Fuller said Fernandez's contract is evidence that jobs could have been spared.

"There was clearly enough money to fund physical education over the last three years when I’ve been laid off," Fuller said.

In interviews in March, Fernandez and Molina said they hoped to work out a revised contract for the superintendent by Tuesday, which was a regularly scheduled board meeting. But instead, Fernandez was not present and it was unclear when or if he would be returning.

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.

Contacted last week, Fernandez said the board had asked him to step aside "while they conduct a review."

He added: "I'm just disappointed that I wasn't able to work out an agreement with them."

Fernandez could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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

Fernandez has said that 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.

He also acknowledged that his base salary has risen sharply. Factors that boosted his pay included automatic raises, stipends and bonuses.

Fernandez said he received the generous contract because he agreed to take control of the school system at a risky time.

Centinela is no longer rated as financially unstable, but students and parents complained Tuesday of a variety of issues at the meeting, including a shortage of textbooks.


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