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Don't Call Us Redundant, Say County Education Offices

August 15, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

California Supt. of Public Education Jack O'Connell picked up the phone last week to talk with one of the state's 58 county school chiefs. "So," he asked, "how does it feel to be an endangered species?"

O'Connell was joking -- he hopes.

Released earlier this month, the California Performance Review -- a tome of recommended state cuts from a panel commissioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- resurrected a decades-old debate when it called for the elimination of county departments of education.

Architects of the proposal say the county offices are a redundant layer of bureaucracy that waste millions of dollars each year and should be replaced by a handful of regional offices.

The plan has forced county superintendents to defend their existence. They, along with O'Connell and officials at several local school districts, argue that the services they provide -- including fiscal oversight of school districts, alternative education and teacher training -- are best managed at the county level.

"We are not a bureaucratic bloat," said Orange County Schools Supt. Bill Habermehl. "If we were wasting taxpayers' money, I'd be the first to recommend getting rid of us. But when you talk about a regional plan, you're talking about moving services farther away from [students and teachers]."

The governor's performance review calls for a constitutional amendment to replace the county offices with 11 regional centers. If an amendment proves unfeasible, the report recommends the governor work with the Legislature to create fiscal incentives for counties to meld voluntarily. Eliminating the county offices would save the state $45 million over five years, the report claims.

"No other state has a similar structure," the Performance Review notes, adding that more than a third of states have no layer of education offices between the state and local districts.

Created in the mid-1800s, county offices in California are almost all headed by an elected superintendent and board of trustees. Services to school districts vary from county to county, but most serve as a central administrative hub, handling payroll and pension funds, offering legal advice and teacher development, and coordinating bulk purchases of supplies.

State law mandates that county education offices watch over district finances. All school districts must submit their annual budgets to county education officials for approval. For a district in financial trouble, county officials are required to review labor negotiations to ensure the district can meet salary agreements.

Counties also often run alternative schools for expelled students and special education classes for the severely learning-disabled.

The 58 county offices, which spent $4.4 billion in state and local funds last year, range widely in size. Small staffs perform both county and district tasks in seven rural counties in which there is only one school district. The Orange County Department of Education, one of the state's largest, employs 2,000 people and has a $240-million annual budget.

With most of his staff working at schools, Habermehl said nearly 90% of his annual funds are spent directly on students in the classroom.

But Lisa Snell, director of the education program at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles think-tank that helped write the recommendation, said there is scant evidence that county offices help districts.

"It's just another layer of hoops that districts have to jump through," Snell said. "Why would you have two separate systems, with two separate staffs, doing essentially the same thing?"

Local school officials say they rely heavily on the administrative and classroom services provided by county offices. They're concerned that the proposed regional offices would be unable to maintain the personal contact county offices offer.

"We have a partnership," said Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Al Mijares, whose staff worked closely with county officials in recent months to pull the 60,000-student district out of a severe budget shortfall. "I am thankful for the insight they have provided."

Maria Ott, senior deputy superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, echoed Mijares. With districts trying to make do with shrinking budgets, Ott said they can't afford to risk losing support.

Superintendents in several small districts said the loss of county offices would force them to compete with larger pools of schools for services.

"We would just become a really, really small district with essentially no support ," said Jim Parsons, who doubles as school superintendent of Alpine County -- the state's smallest -- and its lone school district. "We would have no champion, no advocate."

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