In the wake of a critical Orange County Grand Jury report, the county Board of Education took a cautious--but unanimous--step Thursday toward creating a blue-ribbon commission that would analyze the board's relationship with the county superintendent of schools.
The move ultimately could lead to a countywide vote on whether the superintendent should continue to be elected or should be appointed by the board.
For almost two decades, grand juries have been criticizing the county Department of Education, an 800-employee, $50-million-a-year agency supervised by a county superintendent of schools. A consultant who was hired by the 1985-86 grand jury to interview the district school superintendents reported that the superintendents were unanimously critical of the county department. Several of the superintendents said the department's operations were archaic and its leadership outdated.
Some previous grand juries even have suggested that the department be abolished.
This year's jury urged the board to create a blue-ribbon panel to study the advantages of having an appointed superintendent of schools.
But the five-member board on Thursday voted instead to take an interim step. By unanimous vote, the board agreed to appoint an internal committee to form guidelines for the proposed blue-ribbon commission. The commission would then be named following a second board vote, probably in October.
"I think we will definitely be moving forward to a blue-ribbon commission that will give us recommendations," said Elizabeth Parker, president of the five-member Board of Education and a strong supporter of a move for a special study group.
The unanimous vote came as a surprise, since before Thursday's special meeting, the board was divided about such a study.
The board said Thursday that if a blue-ribbon commission ultimately is named, as now seems likely, the commission must report on the feasibility of changing from an elective to an appointive superintendent and on the likelihood of voter support for the change. The commission must also report on what differences the change would make for the board and the county Department of Education.
The complicated sequence is as follows:
- Parker now names an internal committee, composed of board members and Department of Education staff. The committee sets guidelines for a proposed blue-ribbon commission. The rules would include a time limit on when the commission would report back and how much money is available for its expenses.
- The internal committee will report back to the county Board of Education sometime in October.
- The board then will vote whether to proceed with naming a citizens' blue-ribbon commission. Parker has said the citizens' group should be no bigger than seven persons.
- If the board proceeds, as now seems likely, that citizens' commission would study the complicated structure of the county Board of Education and the county superintendent of schools.
- If the commission recommends such a change, and if the Board of Education agrees, it would then petition the county Board of Supervisors to call a referendum at the next countywide election. That referendum would be on whether the county superintendent of schools should be appointed or elected.
It is possible that the entire sequence could be completed by early 1987. If so, Orange County voters might have the education issue before them on the June, 1987 ballot.
But incumbent county schools Supt. Robert D. Peterson predicted Thursday that even if the complicated sequence leads to a county referendum, nothing will come of it.
"The commission would be studying something that's going nowhere," Peterson told the board. "I can tell you that the voters will never give up their right to elect a superintendent."
California voters have consistently resisted moves for changing the county education system. In 1978, all counties in the state, including Orange, overwhelmingly defeated a referendum on making the county superintendent of schools appointive. Last November, voters in Riverside County overwhelmingly defeated the proposed change.
Peterson, who has been the county's elected superintendent for the last 20 years but who was the target of harsh criticism in the 1985-86 grand jury report, stressed that he was "not taking it personally."
Peterson said that if a commission were to have any value, it should study "suicide by students and drug abuse." The board, however, did not pursue his recommendation.
Board member Francis X. Hoffman had previously opposed the idea of a blue-ribbon commission. Like Peterson, Hoffman had predicted that voters would never change from an elected superintendent to an appointed one.