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A lot has changed at the San Diego County Office of Education since June, when voters elected two new board members and forced an incumbent into a November runoff election.
The five-member board of education placed County Superintendent Randy Ward on paid leave after a lawsuit alleged he illegally paid himself $100,000, a forensic audit of Ward’s compensation got under way and an interim superintendent was selected.
Some board members have called for a search for Ward’s permanent replacement. Ward, who’s led the County Office of Education since 2006, has one year left on his contract and had said he plans to retire at the end of this school year. Ward has not responded to requests for an interview.
It remains to be seen whether Ward will return to his normal duties, but two to three new board members will take office in January at the obscure agency, which oversees the county’s 42 school districts and educates some of the most vulnerable students in the county, including some who are homeless, have been incarcerated or kicked out of traditional schools.
Mark Powell and Paulette Donnellon beat out incumbents in June to take two of those seats and recently shared their thoughts about the commotion from the sidelines. Former state Sen. Mark Wyland — who will face off with the board’s current vice president, Rick Shea, in a November runoff — declined to comment.
These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.
What do you think about the board’s decision this summer to place the superintendent on paid leave, initiate a forensic audit and hire an interim superintendent?
Mark Powell: I believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty and Randy Ward has not been charged with a crime, so I haven’t heard of any investigation as far as that. … If he received $100,000, it came from some part of the budget, so a forensic audit would be appropriate. Other than that, I have no knowledge of the negotiations that went on when he was the superintendent.
I’m not in a position right now to make any judgement about whether I feel it was illegal or not illegal. I don’t have access to the budget. I haven’t seen the contracts between the superintendent and the current board. … It’s probably good to hash this out in the courts to see if that ‘me-too’ clause was appropriate or if it overstepped his bounds as superintendent.
What I think the board should do at this point is take the advice of their legal counsel, so if their counsel said it’s better to place him on leave, they should follow the advice of counsel. …
What I haven’t had is any member of the current board reach out to me to brief me on what’s going on. I understand I am not a board member yet. I am an elect, but they know I won the election. They know I am coming in January 2017. I would think they’d reach out.
I have 100 percent confidence in our public school systems. Once we get past our audit, we can then focus on what’s best for students again, which is what we should be doing now.
Paulette Donnellon: I don’t know the full story. I’m not in those closed-session meetings to hear what’s going on. … I believe that Dr. Ward is innocent until proven guilty, No. 1. No. 2, again, I haven’t looked at the lawsuit itself yet. Haven’t had the opportunity, but with something like this, I’m sure there was a reason.
Obviously, my vote is supporting the kids and doing what’s best for kids. Right now, I feel like it’s a huge distraction and taking away from what’s best for kids. I’m sure our county folks are doing everything they can to best serve kids, but this is a distraction. … There are a lot great things going on at the county as well.
Did you see any of this coming on the campaign trail?
Powell: No, not at all. In fact, the County Board of Education and the role that they play was really not known to the public. … The board wasn’t really in the paper. They flew under the radar.
Donnellon: Obviously, I’m currently a board member at Escondido Union School District and we’ve had our own set of challenges up there, and I think that prepared me for what’s going on at the county.
When should the board hire a new permanent superintendent?
Powell: I would appreciate if this board hold off on appointing a permanent superintendent until the new board is sworn in in January and let the new board have input about who will be the next superintendent. … Similar to when (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia passed and the Obama administration wanted to appoint a new Supreme Court justice, it appears everyone decided to hold off until either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is there. Similarly, I think this board should hold off until a new board is in place. And there is still one undecided seat remaining that will be determined in November, so we will know about the makeup of the board after that election.
Donnellon: You want to get community input, but also input from other school districts in the county. … For the board to take that on before the end of the year would seem extremely rushed. It’s a big county when it comes to supporting our kids, and you want to get the right person in there.
There’s only four months. … I would just want to make sure there is a thorough process and quite frankly, this new board will be working with that new person so they should have input in who that is. Randy could be reinstated. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, but I would feel it’s incumbent on the current board to wait.