This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow Harrington at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.

Feb. 7

Some Contra Costa County trustees are attempting to flex their muscles by pushing for a ballot measure to convert the superintendent from an elected to an appointed position. But they're being told by the county's legal counsel that they may be too weak to call for an election themselves.

The issue came to a head Wednesday, when Trustees Daniel Gomes and Pamela Mirabella challenged the legal opinion and said they want to seek advice from an outside lawyer. The pair also expressed frustration that they couldn't move forward with that vote on Wednesday because Gomes' proposal was listed on the agenda as an "information" item instead of an "action" item, as he had requested.

Gomes alleged that Superintendent Joseph Ovick and his staff appeared to be trying to stall the item, which could potentially prevent the board from voting on it by the March deadline to get it on the 2014 ballot. Bill Clark, associate superintendent of business services, and Mary Ann Mason, assistant county counsel, said they could not find a legal precedent giving the Board of Education the authority to call an election.


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Instead, they said, it is the county Board of Supervisors' role to decide whether or not to place a measure on the ballot. Or, an initiative could be created and placed on the ballot if it received enough voter signatures.

Both Gomes and Mirabella said they want to convert the position because they were dissatisfied with Ovick's decision in 2009 to give raises to top administrators during lean budget years, when other employees made sacrifices during union negotiations. Some of those district leaders ended up retiring soon afterward, Gomes said.

"In two cases," he said, "this resulted in a spiking of their pensions."

Mirabella said she felt powerless because the board had no authority to reject the raises approved by Ovick. She would have preferred to have given the money to new employees who would work in the county for many years, instead of to top administrators who were about to leave, she said.

Trustee Richard Asadoorian, who was not on the board when the raises were approved, said he has previously believed that voters should have the ability to choose the county superintendent. But, after seeing Ovick run unopposed for years, he has begun to question whether voters understand the complex issues the superintendent oversees. Trustees, he said, might be able to solicit many qualified candidates if the position were appointed.

The frustration expressed by Gomes and Mirabella regarding their lack of power over the elected superintendent is similar to the recent controversy in Pleasant Hill, where council members have admitted they could not compel the elected city clerk to produce minutes. In school districts, however, elected trustees have the authority to hire and fire their appointed superintendents.

This is the kind of power Gomes, Mirabella and Asadoorian appear to want. But Board President Ellen Elster, a retired deputy superintendent who worked for Ovick, said she did not want to be associated with the ballot proposal. She scoffed at the concerns of Gomes and Mirabella, interrupting them at times.

Trustee Cynthia Ruehlig said there are other ways to communicate dissatisfaction with a superintendent's decisions.

"It's so drastic," she said. "It's like throwing a grenade at a rat."

Ovick plans to retire in December, and he was not present at the meeting. Deputy Superintendent Karen Sakata, one of the administrators who received a hefty raise from Ovick, has announced her candidacy for his position.

Gomes suggested that another unopposed election could, in effect, allow Ovick to groom Sakata for his job.

"Is this some kind of fiefdom the superintendent runs for himself," he said, "and hand-picks his successor?"

Gomes and Mirabella directed Clark to bring a list of attorneys to the board at their next meeting so they can hire one to render a second opinion about the board's ability to place a measure on the ballot. They plan to hold a special meeting two weeks later to hear that attorney's opinion and vote on placing the measure on the ballot, if they get a green light.