Several members of the Ventura County Board of Education are concerned that $30,000 they authorized last year to revise overall district policy--a move detractors say was designed to give the board greater authority over the superintendent's office--is being spent without their control.
The board, however, voted unanimously on Monday to pay $12,800 to the Sacramento law firm that prepared a first draft of the new policy, which is modeled after the policies of the schools in San Diego County.
"We have now expended 43% of the total budget we approved, and this board has not met with the law firm," said board member John McGarry. "They have taken it upon themselves to base the policy on the San Diego Board of Education. I can't fathom dealing with a law firm in this way. It bothers the daylights out of me."
On the surface, the policy revision process that was initiated last spring was an attempt to revise all district administrative policies, but critics maintain it was an effort by the board to rein in Supt. Charles Weis. The board and Weis had clashed on several issues, including providing AIDS education training for teachers.
Selecting San Diego as a model is surprising because it is one of a handful of California counties where the superintendent of schools is appointed. In Ventura and most other counties, the schools chief is elected.
"It doesn't seem like a logical choice," Weis said.
"I, too, would question the choice of a county with an appointed superintendent," McGarry said.
But board President Marty Bates, who initiated the board policy review, said the choice was appropriate.
"The education code that controls the county board is the same whether the superintendent is appointed or elected," Bates said.
Board member Al Rosen said he suspected it was Bates, along with board member Wendy Larner, who guided the law firm in the direction of the San Diego policy.
Billing records from the law firm show that Bates and Larner had a luncheon in January with attorney Jan Damesyn and other attorneys who are preparing the policy review, a meeting that angered Rosen and McGarry.
"They never asked us as a board for permission to have that luncheon with the attorneys," Rosen said. The board should have clearly outlined its goals before the law firm began working on the project, Rosen said.
But Bates said in an interview Tuesday that the meeting with the attorneys was merely informational.
"We told them we wanted the policy brought up to date," he said. The document is only a proposed first draft of a revised policy and the board will have ample opportunity to review it, Bates said.
Larner, who missed Monday's board meeting, was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Damesyn said Tuesday that the law firm had been acting under its own initiative. The San Diego school system was chosen because it was a county that had recently undergone a policy revision, she said. Damesyn said she had also looked at several other counties' policies, including Ventura's.
Critics of the draft policy said they were concerned that the 200-page document is an almost identical copy of the San Diego policy.
Weis said he recently ordered a copy of the San Diego policy to compare it with the law firm's draft revisions but hadn't had a chance to study the two documents in detail yet.
"If you are using another county's policy it shouldn't cost you any money," Weis said. "The taxpayers have already paid for it."
Even board member Angela Miller, who supports the policy review, thought the $12,800 fee was high.
"I agree that board policies need to be revised," Miller said. "And we do have to use a law firm to make sure the policy is within the law. But this is a really high fee for basically copying the San Diego policy."
But Damesyn said there are significant differences between the draft policy and the San Diego policy. Additionally, the law firm has spent more than 100 hours studying the education code and the policies of several county boards, she said.
The board agreed to arrange a meeting with the attorneys within the next seven weeks.