A taxpayer group is suing county superintendent of schools Randy Ward, claiming he illegally paid himself as much as $100,000 in recent years, and doled out improper pay to his top staffers.

The lawsuit – filed Thursday in San Diego County Superior Court by the California Taxpayers Action Network, represented by San Diego attorney Cory Briggs – takes aim at several aspects of Ward’s compensation, including so-called “me-too” raises they say violate strict state conflict-of-interest laws.

Ward has served as the top executive of the San Diego County Office of Education since June 2006, and his pay has put him among the highest compensated K-12 public school employees in the state.

In June 2013, the elected five-member board added language to Ward’s contract that let him collect the same raises teachers get as long as he earned a satisfactory performance evaluation.

In June 2014, the board did away with the evaluation requirement and gave him the same raises as teachers automatically, without consideration of his performance. As a result, that year, Ward received a 5.1 percent raise worth $14,535, and has continued to receive guaranteed raises matching teachers ever since.

Me-too clauses can be legal, but California laws generally prohibit self-dealing to ensure that government officials’ responsibility to negotiate salaries in the best interest of taxpayers isn’t compromised by a personal financial incentive.

Since Ward negotiates with the teacher’s union and helps decide what raises teachers get, his actions could be considered self-dealing. If deemed illegal in court, at least $70,000 in payments could be voided and ordered repaid to the agency.

Another bone of contention raised in the lawsuit deals with an earlier raise granted to Ward before the “me-too” raises were put in place.

In 2008, the board gave Ward a 3.8 percent raise, but he postponed taking it. Then, two years later, he retroactively authorized it via an interoffice memorandum to the business department causing a windfall of up to $31,400.

Staff did not respond to questions asking whether the move could have spiked his pension – or improperly boosted his retirement benefits in violation of state rules. The impact on Ward’s pension is not discussed in the lawsuit.

The California Constitution generally prohibits non-union employees like Ward from getting paid long after work was performed, so the belated me-too pay bumps are also unconstitutional, the nonprofit taxpayer group says.

The lawsuit also names the County Office of Education’s longtime chief business officer, Lora Duzyk, claiming she too acted illegally and abused her office.

“Defendant Ward has no legal right to accept retroactive pay increases, and none of the Defendants has the legal authority to increase their compensation without first obtaining the BoE’s (board) approval,” the lawsuit says.

The group contends the board’s action adding me-too raises to Ward’s contract doesn’t mean the payments were legal.

A recent salary bump for Ward of 4 percent that took effect July 1 brought his base salary to $331,736 and is also being questioned by the group. Voice of San Diego also asked the County Office of Education for an explanation of the recent raise and has not yet heard back.

Ward just began the final year of a three-year superintendent employment contract that expires July 1, 2017.

Ward and Duzyk did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We don’t litigate through the press, so we won’t have any comment on this matter,” said Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the County Office of Education.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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