Some Contra Costa County trustees are attempting to flex their muscles by pushing for a ballot measure to convert the superintendent from an elected to an appointed position. But they’re being told by county’s legal counsel that they may be too weak to call for an election themselves.
The issue came to a head Wednesday, when Trustees Daniel Gomes and Pamela Mirabella challenged the legal opinion and said they want to seek advice from an outside lawyer. The pair also expressed frustration that they couldn’t move forward with that vote on Wednesday because Gomes’ proposal was listed on the agenda as an “information” item instead of an “action” item, as he had requested.
Gomes alleged that Superintendent Joseph Ovick and his staff appeared to be trying to stall the item, which could potentially prevent the board from voting on it by the March deadline to get it on the 2014 ballot. Bill Clark, associate superintendent of business services, and Mary Ann Mason, assistant county counsel, said they could not find a legal precedent giving the Board of Education the authority to call an election.
Instead, they said, it is the County board of supervisors’ role to decide whether or not to place a measure on the ballot. Or, an initiative could be created and placed on the ballot if it received enough voter signatures.
Both Gomes and Mirabella said they want to convert the position because they were dissatisfied with Ovick’s decision in 2009 to give raises to top administrators during lean budget years, when other employees made sacrifices during union negotiations. Some of those district leaders ended up retiring soon afterward, Gomes said.
“In two cases,” he said, “this resulted in a spiking of their pensions.”
Mirabella said she felt powerless because the board had no authority to reject the raises approved by Ovick. She would have preferred to have given the money to new employees who would work in the county for many years, instead of to top administrators who were about to leave, she said.
Trustee Richard Asadoorian, who was not on the board when the raises were approved, said he has previously believed that voters should have the ability to choose the county superintendent. But, after seeing Ovick run unopposed for years, he has begun to question whether voters understand the complex issues the superintendent oversees. Trustees, he said, might be able to solicit many qualified candidates if the position were appointed.
The frustration expressed by Gomes and Mirabella regarding their lack of power over the elected superintendent is similar to the recent controversy in Pleasant Hill, where council members have admitted they could not compel the elected city clerk to produce minutes. In school districts, however, elected trustees have the authority to hire and fire their appointed superintendents.
This is the kind of power Gomes, Mirabella and Asadoorian appear to want. But Board President Ellen Elster, a retired deputy superintendent who worked for Ovick, said she did not want to be associated with the ballot proposal. She scoffed at Gomes and Mirabella’s concerns, interrupting them at times.
Trustee Cynthia Ruehlig said there are other ways to communicate dissatisfaction with a superintendent’s decisions.
“It’s so drastic,” she said. “It’s like throwing a grenade at a rat.”
Ovick plans to retire in December and he was not present at the meeting. Deputy Superintendent Karen Sakata, one of the administrators who received a hefty raise from Ovick, has announced her candidacy for his position.
Gomes suggested that another unopposed election could, in effect, allow Ovick to groom Sakata for his job.
“Is this some kind of fiefdom the superintendent runs for himself,” he said, “and hand picks his successor?”
Gomes and Mirabella directed Clark to bring a list of attorneys to the board at their next meeting so they can hire one to render a second opinion about the board’s ability to place a measure on the ballot.
They plan to hold a special meeting two weeks later to hear that attorney’s opinion and vote on placing the measure on the ballot, if they get a green light.
Do you think the County Superintendent should be elected or appointed?
FEB. 10 UPDATE:
Please note that the raises were given in 2009, not 2010, as originally stated. I have corrected that information above.
Here is the story I wrote about the raises at the time:
PAY-RAISE OUTRAGE NOT JUST NATIONAL
COUNTY EDUCATION SUPERINTENDENT GIVES THOUSANDS TO ASSOCIATES, ANGERING WORKERS WHO SAW NO WAGE INCREASES
Publication: CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Reporter: Theresa Harrington Contra Costa Times Staff Writer
Published: Friday, 3/20/2009
Dateline: Dateline: PLEASANT HILL
Calling it “AIG all over again,” a union leader for Contra Costa County education workers says administrators should not receive pay raises while other employees get none.
Teachers, instructional assistants and general classified employees laid into the Contra Costa County board of education and Superintendent Joe Ovick on Wednesday, after learning on March 1 he had raised pay for three associate superintendents by thousands of dollars.
The pay hikes – including one raise of nearly $33,000 – became effective four days after members of Public Employees Union Local 1 agreed to no salary increases because of the state budget crisis, said James Jones, a union representative. Members agreed to sacrifice pay raises to save positions, he said.
“We’re mad as hell,” Jones told the board. “We were told there was no money whatsoever for raises and increases. We were told there would be no layoffs. … This is AIG all over again.”
Ovick said the raises were based on the difficulty of recruiting an associate superintendent of business to replace Deputy Superintendent Ellen Elster, who is retiring this month.
Instead of recruiting another deputy superintendent, Ovick decided to seek an associate superintendent at a lower pay level, who would do essentially the same job, said spokeswoman Peggy Marshburn. When no qualified applicants sought the $134,000 position, Ovick advertised it at $155,000.
Although this is just slightly less than the $156,478 Elster was making and exceeds the maximum $134,530 base salary for associate superintendents, Ovick did not bump the position back up to deputy superintendent or create a new position such as chief financial officer.
Instead, he decided to raise the pay of all the other associate superintendents to put them on par with the new hire.
The associate superintendents, however, were not earning equal salaries before the decision.
Associate superintendent for student services Karen Sakata was earning $122,022. Michael Bowers, associate superintendent for human resources took home $134,530. And associate superintendent for educational services Susan Magnone earned $145,687.
Together, the three associate superintendents gained 6 to 27 percent raises at a total cost of $62,758.
Marshburn said the money came from savings due to reorganization after the retirement of two business service directors.
Ovick did not recruit a deputy superintendent because that position that is typically earned by someone promoted from within, Marshburn said. Board members did not need to approve the decisions, because Ovick is the employer, she added.
Employees and union reps were scalding in their criticism of what seemed lavish expenditures at a time when they were being told to freeze spending on vehicle use and field trips. Some said they could not buy paper or pencils and were concerned about preliminary layoff notices sent earlier this month.
Marshburn played down the layoff concern, saying most of the positions that received the notices ultimately will be retained.
She said Thursday that the county sent 15 notices to certificated managers whose salaries are paid with special funding that has not yet been renewed, seven to teachers on probation who will not be rehired and one to a classified instructional assistant because the student she worked with is no longer attending school.
The teachers will be replaced with new hires and the 15 managers may stay on if their funding comes through, she said.