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Key Issue for School Board

January 10, 1988

One of the first major orders of business facing the Orange County Board of Education in the new year is deciding whether to put the issue of an appointive county school superintendent on the ballot this year. The question belongs before the voters.

The post is now elective, leaving Orange County the only major county in the state that still elects its county school superintendent. Other counties, such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, follow the more professional and sensible approach used by all other local school districts and appoint the superintendent, who is responsible to the elected school board. That approach has the advantage of enabling the locally elected school board to recruit and hire a well-qualified professional educator-administrator to carry out its policies without the board losing accountability to the voters. It's the procedure Orange County ought to be using.

Voters historically are reluctant to make an elected post appointive. Orange County residents, about a decade ago, refused to make that switch. But as residents in other areas have realized, there are some jobs that better serve the public as appointive ones. The county superintendent of schools is one of them.

In the last 10 years, there have been grand jury recommendations to make the office appointive, and last year a special citizens' blue-ribbon commission, appointed by the county Board of Education at the urging of the county grand jury, concluded that there ought to be another county vote on the issue.

The commission didn't believe that the elective approach provided "clear-cut" accountability but did conclude that electing the superintendent and the Board of Education reduced the effectiveness of both.

As a practical matter, that has been evident for years. The potential problems of having the board and the superintendent follow their own policy was seen again last April, when the superintendent barred a teacher with AIDS from continuing to teach handicapped children. The teacher sued, and a federal court ordered the teacher returned to the classroom. The county Department of Education may also have to pay personal damages because of the superintendent's ill-advised action--an action the school board might not have taken.

The Board of Education never publicly supported the superintendent's baseless ban. One board member even felt obliged to write a letter to The Times to point out some of the statutory differences between the "elected" superintendent and the board.

It makes administrative sense to have the elected school board set policy and the superintendent administer that policy instead of having them working at cross purposes with overlapping, contradictory and confusing areas of jurisdiction. In recent years, the county grand juries, the Board of Education and a special commission have studied the built-in problems of dual policy-making. Voters ought to take another look at it too.

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