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September 23, 2009 > School board to answer Grand Jury

School board to answer Grand Jury

By Dustin Findley

The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury's report "Who Really Benefits from Education Dollars? (Hint: It's not the students)" finds school boards and superintendents could spend education dollars much more responsibly.

The report criticizes school boards, superintendents and community-college chancellors for their salaries, benefits and other perquisites. Benefits more generous than those of school district staff, housing allowances, merit increases, performance bonuses, guaranteed raises, pension allowances in addition to STRS and PERS retirement programs and even interest-free loans of up to $1M were scrutinized.

The Grand Jury made six findings.

1) Boards of Trustees approve overly generous benefits to themselves. School boards should review them and eliminate health-care benefits for trustees and their families, minimize travel and conference costs and abolish pension contributions.

"This recommendation won't be implemented because it is neither warranted nor reasonable," Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) Board of Education president Mendizabal responded officially.

The Grand Jury permits a limited number of responses to its findings and recommendations - to do what they recommend, already done it, need more time to study, not doing it because it is neither warranted nor reasonable.

"We don't have any of those," Mendizabal said. "We have benefits, the same as our staff, but they're not fully paid... We don't have any travel and conference costs at all. We reimburse some school board members for minor... fees for classes and training. Our board members don't receive pension contributions.

MUSD trustees are eligible for the same health-care benefits as MUSD employees and receive a $250 monthly stipend for performing their duties. MUSD works hard to retain veteran trustees and encourages community members to run for vacant board positions. Trustees may volunteer over 20 hours weekly on MUSD business besides fulfilling their obligation to attend two school meetings.

"With complex compliance issues facing education and trustees, minimizing travel to training is a shortsighted solution to meet education cuts" Mendizabal said. "Trustees who can't personally afford state and local conferences can unintentionally make one bad decision that'll cost their District considerably more than the cost of training and travel."

Boardmember Gwan Alisantosa and Mendizabal agree attendance at the annual school board conference is beneficial.

Such events help trustees, current and newly-appointed, keep abreast of complex developments and issues such as Education (Ed) Code. More affordable training methods include online training from the California School Board Association.

2) School superintendents and school chancellors enjoy 18 benefits deemed excessive.

MUSD's superintendent receives only six, of which three are agreed contractually - medical examinations, a modest car allowance and reimbursement for professional and community membership subscriptions. A few school districts within Santa Clara County appear to favor certain people with certain benefits. Milpitas does not do this.

3) No correlation exists between superintendents' salaries and number of schools, students, employees or the District's/students' academic performance and improvement. Salaries should reflect these issues.

The MUSD board evaluates the superintendent according to goals set the previous year. Closing the achievement gap and improving attainment by all students is an ongoing objective. Additionally, the MUSD superintendent's salary, decided by the community, is below the county-average for a superintendent. Salaries and wages of all MUSD employees appear in the public domain.

4) Costly recruitment processes for new school district superintendents. The Grand Jury recommends school boards recruit superintendents "locally." Opponents fear poaching from neighboring districts and want recruitment, locally or from further afield, to remain a board and community decision.

According to Mendizabal, school boards should be free to appoint an unbiased headhunter to find qualified people. The board is usually aware of suitable candidates within the District. It is more cost effective to conduct an internal and external search simultaneously.

5) Hiring multiple private attorneys on same cases at tremendous expense.

"While rates may seem exorbitant, if the district acts on a legal issue incorrectly, the consequences and costs could far outweigh the fees of a competent attorney. Hence the need to hire multiple attorneys"

The District deals with a gamut of issues, from special education, personnel, liability and contracts. The board feels it prudent to employ attorneys who are experts in their respective fields and only pays them for their work. Retainers are not paid.

The Grand Jury suggests the 33 school districts in Santa Clara County find lawyers through the County. Mendizabal questions the practicality of this recommendation.

6) Some smaller school districts have excessive superintendent-costs per student.

Mendizabal agrees with the facts but not with the Grand Jury recommendation to consolidate districts. Communities should have the right to decide either to retain their small school district or follow procedures to merge with another.

The MUSD school board must reply in writing to the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury by September 25.

The Grand Jury report is available for online review and download the website: www.sccsuperiorcourt.org/jury/GJ.html

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