Alameda County schools Superintendent Sheila Jordan is stepping down after nearly 16 years, just as California enters a new era of education financing.
Local school districts have more discretion on how to spend their money, but they will be required to contribute additional funds to prop up the state teacher retirement system and might face limits on how much they can set aside to cushion against future downturns.
Consequently, careful budgeting will be more important than ever. That's why the financial oversight by the county superintendent is a vital consideration. That's why Helen Foster is the better pick in the Nov. 4 runoff election.
As administrator of the county Office of Education, the superintendent oversees schooling for students in the juvenile justice system and teen mothers, teacher training programs, and curriculum development and technology assistance for districts.
Most significantly, the superintendent reviews finances of the 18 school districts in the county and must sound alarms when one is heading for a financial cliff or unrealistically addressing its accounting.
Foster, a school administrator since 2000, has served as a school principal in Livermore, a human resources official in the San Jose and Hayward school districts, and a school board trustee in San Lorenzo.
She's not the inside candidate. Jordan has been grooming Karen Monroe, associate superintendent since 2012 to succeed her. Neither candidate was our first pick in the June election.
Before that balloting we noted that Monroe hadn't mastered the details of her office's budget as well as we would like. In a follow-up interview this month, we found Monroe reluctant to provide direct responses to financial questions.
In contrast, Foster provided the sort of no-nonsense answers we would expect from someone who must critically review school district budgets. For example, she sharply, and appropriately, criticized a new state requirement that in future years could limit most districts to reserves of 6 percent of their general funds.
Similarly, consider the county Office of Education's $6 million unfunded liability for its employees' retiree health benefits. The district has enough reserves to cover the debt, but Monroe is unwilling to place the money in a trust so that it can't be tapped in the future for other purposes. Foster wisely supports setting up a trust to ensure the money is not vulnerable to political whim.
We're looking for a superintendent willing to make tough, even unpopular, decisions. Foster better meets that requirement.