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Superintendent Randolph Ward was shooting the breeze with a brand new state legislator in his office at the County Office of Education. After half an hour of chatting about Sacramento politics and school issues, time was up. Ward asked if he had any other questions. The politician had one.
“What do you guys do?”
Like most people, you probably have no idea what the San Diego County Office of Education does, either. Yet the County Office has been an increasingly important player in local schools — and is likely to become even more important as school budgets plunge. It is a public agency that has three major roles: pooling resources to help school districts, holding the districts accountable and filling gaps in the countywide system.
“They do the things school districts can’t or don’t want to do,” said Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education.
It has the power to halt state payments to schools. It spends more than $700 million annually. And the office has evolved to go far beyond finances, playing a growing role in what happens in classrooms. So for confused politicians and anyone else, here’s a rundown of what a County Office of Education does:
Holding Schools Accountable
County offices have gained more and more power to keep an eye on school districts. Two decades ago, lawmakers sickened by the financial meltdown of a Northern California school district decided that the offices should vet schools budgets several times a year.
If a school system decides it just doesn’t feel like making a budget, the county office can stop them from cutting checks. It can also insist that a district rewrite its budget plans if the numbers are off.
For instance, the local County Office flagged the San Diego Unified budget last summer because it didn’t include a last-minute state cut to funds for highly disabled students. It cautioned that the district should avoid spending more money than it takes in. San Diego Unified had to revise its plan and resubmit it.
And year after year, its powers have increased. When the state passes new school rules, it often puts the office in charge of enforcing them. For instance, the county office is responsible for ensuring that schools have adequate textbooks. It makes sure they help high schoolers who fail the exit exam.
It has also started to monitor how well schools are performing academically. When Vista Unified School District fell short under No Child Left Behind, it chose the County Office to help and monitor it.
Small districts rely on the County Office to help them get services too costly to buy on their own.
When Bonsall Union School District wanted to help children connect to lessons and digital homework at home, it faced big costs for computer servers and all the people to keep them humming.
A tiny school district like Bonsall would strain to afford that. Instead, it buys into a common computer network run by the County Office. It costs less because districts share the price.
“School districts would have to build this many times,” said Chief Technology Officer Stephen Clemons, showing off the programs. “Our philosophy is, ‘Let’s build it once.’”
The office has expanded into providing school districts everything from superintendent searches to energy savings to educational television. Experts are on tap to help districts struggling to meet the needs of English learners or teach science. It markets itself as sort of a one-stop shop for districts in need.
And it has to market itself. Only a small slice of its budget — an estimated $20 million — comes from the state specifically to operate a county office. Much of its funding is from selling services to school districts, which fork over money to run their payroll, use its computer network, and so on.
“We have to be really good at what we do to sell our services,” said assistant superintendent of business services Lora Duzyk. “That helps us get funding beyond the pittance the state gives us.”
The County Office also runs 62 schools of its own for more than 14,000 students with unusual needs all over the county, including incarcerated youth, severely disabled students, pregnant teens and foster kids.
The idea is that county offices can better serve small groups of students in unusual situations by regionalizing services for them. As math and social studies teacher Ron Palacz put it, “anyone who doesn’t fit in a regular school can fit with us.”
That is the short answer to the question, “What do you guys do?” But the larger question that county offices and education leaders statewide have grappled with is, “What should you guys do?”
Should they gain more power in academics? One state commission complained that while the offices can guide schools to success, they lack much power to intervene. The office can cut off funds if districts monkey with money. It has to be invited in to help districts that struggle with reading and math.
Others have been uneasy about expanding that power. When California applied for federal money to help reform schools, it proposed new regional centers to help, instead of turning to the county offices. Rick Miller, one of the architects of the plan, said they feared some offices weren’t up to the task.
From time to time, critics have questioned whether they should exist at all. Big districts tend to be more removed, even skeptical about their powers. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to consolidate the offices last year to save money; it didn’t happen. The offices argue they actually save money.
While the local County Office shells out more than $700 million annually, it says only $33 million is for operating the office itself. The rest goes into its own schools and services for school districts.
Despite its powers, the San Diego County Office of Education is unlikely to get much more limelight. Unlike most counties, its superintendent is appointed, not elected. Ward is a charismatic figure with a dramatic history-— he led the state takeover of Compton and Oakland schools — but his self-described role here as a convener and facilitator draws much less attention.
But its low profile could also help internal problems to go undetected. Top employees at the County Office had been allowed for years to avoid reporting gifts they received, sidestepping state law. The state Fair Political Practices Commission is now investigating an employee who has advised her boss on retaining attorneys for cases that routinely lead to work for her husband’s law firm.
Ward rejected the idea that the office is obscure and argued it is no more or less prone to problems. But for good or ill, its politics tend to be sleepy. Two of its board members ran unopposed last summer.
The County Board of Education keeps its hands off and lets Ward run the office as he sees fit. And the kids it serves are usually the most disadvantaged, whose parents are less likely to get involved.
“People go, ‘What the heck do they really do?’” said Sue Burr, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. “We’re the silent partners.”
Please contact Emily Alpert directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.