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County education trustees seek more power over superintendent

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, February 7th, 2014 at 8:53 pm in Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education.

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?


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:


Reporter: Theresa Harrington Contra Costa Times Staff Writer
Published: Friday, 3/20/2009

Section: News
Page: 1A

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.

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41 Responses to “County education trustees seek more power over superintendent”

  1. ClarenceW2 Says:

    I guess Trustee Elster is healthy enough to perform responsibilities as President? This is good news. For a while, she missed so many meetings, that the board had to review policies on how to address such absenteeism because of her situation. I have never received a reply from Trustee Elster about any concerns I have had. She does not behave like an elected official. I have received replies from those not in my district, including Mr. Gomes and Mrs. Ruehlig. This calls into question the distinction between an appointee and an elected representative, and the additional issue of districts vs at-large representation. For those in Trustee Elster’s district, she is as invisible as a ghost.

    Personally, I believe our elected board should do the hiring and firing of our superintendent. They will do the necessary due-dilligence that goes with any hiring process for such a position. We will hold our elected board accountable for doing such.

  2. ClarenceW2 Says:

    Some arguments for an appointed superintendent are made here.

    Here is a previous CC Times editorial endorsing candidates (including Elster) because of their support an elected superintendent.

    The concept of independence sounds great, but from a practical standpoint, an appointed superintendent seems more effective.

  3. Mary Fouts Says:

    Ms. Harrington: I have never fathomed why a County Board of Education, County Superintendent, and associated administrative staff are necessary, when we already have a Board of Supervisors and various School Boards. Perhaps you can pen an investigative article to educate the public on the function of the County Board of Education, its annual budget, and whether or not this extra layer of bureaucracy – or perhaps more aptly described as an extra political fifedom – is truly necessary.

  4. tmharrington Says:

    Please note that I have begun uploading video clips from the County Board of Ed discussion at
    The County Office of Education oversees the districts’ budgets. Under the new funding law, the County Office of Education is also responsible for overseeing the district’s new Local Control Accountability Plans. The County Office also runs several special education schools and provides training to district staffs on issues such as the Common Core.
    However, the County Board of Education has very little power, as is evidenced in its desire to have more direct control over the superintendent.

  5. tmharrington Says:

    Please note that I have added a Feb. 10 update to this blog post, which reposts the story I wrote about the raises back in 2009. I have also updated the blog post to reflect that the raises were given in 2009, not 2010.

  6. g. de la verdad Says:

    Theresa, thanks for the update. I found minutes of a couple of cccboe meetings very helpful as well.

    Staff Report from minutes of 4/1/09

    and especially,

    Board, Legislative update, Board Resolution of 5/6/09
    While reading those, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the board member knowledge and concern with detail. And wonder why district boards, MDUSD in particular, don’t seem to do much more than stare at our budget reports, rarely/never questioning anything. They sit just as mutely while new hires, salaries, promotions and shifts in pay grades get rubber stamped.
    It must be nice to see what looks like a flush balance and ignore the detail.

  7. tmharrington Says:

    I have just heard from our political reporter that Sakata hasn’t filed a campaign finance statement yet. If she has raised or spent $1,000, she should have filed a statement. Considering how long ago she announced her candidacy, this is surprising.

  8. Doctor J Says:

    MDUSD Board takes the 5th on readiness for Smarter Balanced testing and remains SILENT. MDUSD is very much in the same mess as many valley schools — its not ready and the testing window comes during their spring break. “Valley school districts are buying up laptops and tablets by the thousands to administer new computerized state tests this spring, but officials say they’re still working through snags like slow Internet connections and training students to type on keyboards.”

    Read more here:

  9. tmharrington Says:

    Linda Delehunt is running for County Superintendent of Schools:

  10. tmharrington Says:

    Ovick recently sang Sakata’s praises when she received a regional ACSA award:

  11. ClarenceW2 Says:

    What does oversight of the Superintendent’s office look like for an elected superintendent? Does anyone conduct a performance evaluation of this person? If so, can we see a copy of the evaluation document? Who assesses the performance of the CCC Office of Education? Is a Performance Audit performed by an outside auditor, one that assesses efficiencies, etc., as opposed to a financial audit? I’m a state employee and we have plenty of oversight. We have all kinds of folks getting in our business. Who is watching over the CCCOE? Thanks!

  12. tmharrington Says:

    Clarence, I believe the board does do performance evaluations, but it doesn’t have the power to hire or fire the supt. These evaluations would not be public, since they are personnel-related. Ultimately, the CA Dept. of Ed. oversees the County Office of Education. I don’t believe there is a performance audit, but there are financial audits.

  13. ClarenceW2 Says:

    I wouldn’t vote for Sekata because she accepted that pay raise at a time when state employees like myself lost $10,000 to $15,000 yearly for 2-3 years as a result of furloughs and pay cuts. I definitely would vote for someone who promised to conduct a performance audit of this government agency. The CDE has failed to prevent government waste. It is up to us. Superintendent Ovick’s actions are a red flag. We need to demand that performance audit.

  14. k. saint Says:

    AB 484 requires all LEA’s to field test smarter balanced assessments this spring for various grade levels. Dr. J – does MDUSD have enough computers at each site for our kids to take the test? If not, what sites are deficient? And why?

  15. Doctor J Says:

    Short answer to saint: NO. MDUSD refuses to discuss the purchase schedule, the construction schedule, and the wireless capabilities. If you don’t believe me, ask Rose Lock for the specifics — she will give you some mumbled answer but not specifics. The testing window includes one week of “spring break” — the construction schedule will not be completed for the elementary schools in time. Check out the measure C site for the latest construction schedules.

  16. tmharrington Says:

    The saga over the county supt. being elected vs. appointed will continue tomorrow night at the County Board of Ed. meeting:

    FYI, spokeswoman Peggy Marshburn told me today that Ovick had nothing to do with placing the item on the agenda for information at the last meeting. She said that decision was made by Board President Ellen Elster, who tabled the item in January, after Gomes was sick and placed it on the February agenda for information, since she didn’t believe the board had enough information to vote.

  17. Doctor J Says:

    District supt’s want a wimpy Barney Fife not a tough Joe Friday County supt. appointment so they can influence the County supt to approve weak LCAP plans without much oversight.

  18. tmharrington Says:

    Actually, COE teachers last night were complaining that the COE is leaving them out of LCAP planning and Common Core training. They said districts are getting more Common Core materials from the county office than they are. They have asked to bargain Common Core training, as WCCUSD has done, and said they have been told “no.” They said there is a meeting planned today at 3 p.m. in Martinez ostensibly for input into the LCAP, which is at a bad time for teachers and wasn’t noticed to the public. The teachers said they support the proposal to convert the superintendent from an elected to an appointed position so the board can have more oversight over the budget, LCAP and Common Core training they receive.

  19. tmharrington Says:

    At last night’s County Board of Ed. meeting, one trustee asked about the payments from Northgate’s PFC to Principal McMorris. PIO Peggy Marshburn said she only knew what she read in the paper and that the County Office of Ed only accepts registration payments for its Model UN program.
    Here’s a CCT editorial calling for McMorris to return the money:

  20. ccowens Says:

    Why wouldn’t the the County BOE and the County Superintendent both have the authority to place something on the ballot given their joint “permissive” authority as school districts? This is where I got that from:

    Also, has anyone just asked Joe Canciamilla, the County elections chief, what he would do if such a measure were filed?

  21. ccowens Says:

    Here is a list of counties with appointed superintendents:

    Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Clara

    San Francisco doesn’t really fit because it’s a single district, but I’m curious if anyone is familiar with how the relationship works out in the other districts.


  22. tmharrington Says:

    The county counsel said the county elections office would need to consult a different attorney in county counsel’s office to determine whether the measure could be placed on the ballot.

  23. g. de la verdad Says:

    It would seem the County counsel is going to be quite busy with other issues. The Feds have stepped into the “pass the ‘IDEA ‘ buck” going on in Contra Costa County Ed Office and Juvenile Corrections.

  24. ccowens Says:

    So, no one has actually issued a written legal opinion yet saying they can’t put something on the ballot? The only opinion is that an opinion must be sought?

  25. tmharrington Says:

    The county counsel gave the opinion that she couldn’t find any legal precedent that shows the County Board of Ed. has the authority to place a measure on the ballot. So, yes, she advised the board to seek outside counsel to research the issue.

  26. tmharrington Says:

    Here’s my news brief on the most recent meeting:

  27. ClarenceW2 Says:

    Is this a riddle? The CCCBOE performs the yearly performance evaluation of the Superintendent. The evaluation is confidential, kept from the voter. The CCCBOE does not hire or replace the Superintendent, the voter does. But the voter does not have access to the performance assessment criteria that the BOE have. So, the least informed are making this critical decision.

  28. tmharrington Says:

    Here’s a new blog post about the Common Core pilot tests starting next month:

  29. ccowens Says:

    To me, the real riddle is why the evaluation of the Superintendent by the CCCBOE is confidential if he isn’t an employee of the CCCBOE,

  30. g. de la verdad Says:

    Confidential evaluation of an Elected Official serves what purpose? Does the office or any person benefit/suffer? Closed door one upmanship? Or just an excuse to order lunch in?

  31. ClarenceW2 Says:

    The evaluation results in feedback for the Superintendent to help them with their job performance. These usually are confidential, just like that of our City Manager performed by the City Council, but we do not elect the City Manager. I think the title of this blog is misleading, that it focuses on “power”. The focus should be on a valid and meaningful process. Currently, such is not in place.

  32. Jim Says:

    Mary — There are multiple layers of oversight, starting at the bottom with school site administrators, then going up through district-level administration, and county boards of ed, then State Depts of Ed and then the Federal Dept of Ed. Why so many layers? Because few in traditional education want to give families a choice in where they receive public education. Choice on the part of end-users is a key ingredient to any system of genuine accountability — as you see in almost all other aspects of our lives. But because we don’t have much choice in traditional public education, we need many, many layers of oversight, and lots of standardized tests, to try to force accountability onto the unaccountable.

    Almost no other advanced country tries to do things this way. You see how well it is working for us.

  33. ccowens Says:

    That’s the point. The City Manager is an employee of the City Council and removable by them. This isn’t the same as the situation discussed here.

    As far as the title. I think it’s fine. It actually describes what’s going on. “County education trustees seek valid and meaningful process concerning superintendent” wouldn’t really say anything.

  34. ClarenceW2 Says:

    Regarding the title, I think it does the argument disservice if it is reduced to “power”. Trustee Asadoorian made the point that voters probably cannot “understand” some of the complex issues. This is not about power, but about a meaningful selection process.

    Regarding the City Manager, I simply raised it to demonstrate that performance evaluations of public officials are normally confidential. Maybe they shouldn’t be, regardless of the hiring process.

  35. tmharrington Says:

    Clarence, At the last meeting, Trustee Dan Gomes specifically said he wanted the board to have more power. Being able to appoint the superintendent would give trustees more power over everything the superintendent handles, including the budget and raises to his administrators.

  36. ClarenceW2 Says:

    My apologies, Theresa. My comment should be directed at Trustee Gomes, not the title of this article. In my opinion, the stronger arguments for appointed superintendent were made by Asadoorian, not Gomes. Looking at only the argument Gomes presented, then Ruehlig’s comment about grenades lobbed at rats seems apropos.

  37. tmharrington Says:

    The saga continues tonight:

  38. tmharrington Says:

    I have just spoken to County Office of Ed. spokeswoman Peggy Marshburn, who told me the County Board of Education does NOT do a performance evaluation of the superintendent, since he is elected. I have corrected my previous comment, which suggested that the board might do such an evaluation.

  39. ClarenceW2 Says:

    Thanks, Theresa. So, we the people, perform the assessment. Hmmmm. I say we brainstorm right here and now. What documents should we request for purpose of reviewing the performance of the Superintendent? I know the current Supe is not running, but what if he were? What metrics and indicators shall we use to assess their performance? This will help us better understand who we elected and whether or not they performed satisfactorily. Did voters make the right choice?

  40. tmharrington Says:

    For WCCUSD readers, the Contra Costa County Board of Ed. expects to vote tonight on the revised MOU with Summit K2 charter. Here’s the agenda:

    And here’s the revised MOU:

  41. tmharrington Says:

    Also, according to the draft minutes, the CCCOE Board has tabled its proposal to ask voters to convert the superintendent from an elected position to an appointed position until April:

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