The budget battle raging between Alameda County Office of Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan and members of her board hasn’t exactly spilled over into the streets of East Bay cities.
Few people are aware of the office or understand what it does.
As Jordan put it in a recent interview: “It’s like nobody’s top priority.”
But if Jordan and the seven member board don’t agree to pass their $30 million budget by the July 1 deadline, the office may well lose its funding. (Last year the board refused to approve Jordan’s budget until July 12, and this year it is threatening to submit its own budget without Jordan’s consent).
“The financial consequences of not adopting and filing your budget as the law specifies are too great to disregard,” State Superintendent of Education Delaine Eastin wrote, in a letter addressed to Jordan and the board earlier this month.
“I urge you to work out your differences. If you do not, I assure you I will cut off the flow of funds for the Alameda County Office of Education.”
Why does it matter?
The county office operates some small, specialized schools that serve about 600 of the most “at risk” students in the county, ranging from high school dropouts to youth incarcerated in Juvenile Hall. But perhaps the most widely publicized duty of the office, ironically enough, is to supervise the budgets of the county’s 18 local school districts, making sure they are submitted on time and in the proper format.
“They provide us with advice and support when we have critical problems, and they have been very helpful in that regard,” said Berkeley School Board President Terry Doran.
When the Emeryville Unified School District came up $650,000 short last year, it was the county office of education that stepped in to bail them out, said Emeryville Interim Superintendent Laura Alvarenga.
“My hope, and I think the hope of everyone, is that the board and superintendent find a way to work out whatever issues they have at hand so they can continue to operate,” Alvarenga said.
The battle between Jordan and her board members heated up last week when the board majority announced they were hiring their own financial advisor, allegedly because Jordan and her staff were not providing them with the information they needed to make sound budget decisions.
“We don’t feel that we’ve been getting accurate or complete information since she took over as superintendent,” said board President Ernest Avellar Monday.
Avellar said the board will proceed with plans to introduce a competing budget unless it is given better information from Jordan, and more input into Jordan’s budget.
He said the board’s requests for more information often illicit no response. For example, Jordan and her staff have not explained how they will come up with the money for a proposed 10 percent raise in county teachers’ salaries despite repeated requests for that information, Avellar said.
Avellar and other board members said they won’t tolerate cuts in county school programs to provide the money for a pay raise.
Jordan said the board members opposing her are simply engaged in a “hostile political move” aimed at driving her or her staff out of office. This would allow it to appoint her replacement, she said.
“It really has become this demoralizing slap in the face,” Jordan said.
Jordan said she has made improving the quality of budget information available to the board a top priority since she came into office in 1998. She has broken down expenditures and revenue to the level of each individual school site, she said, so the board could pinpoint exactly why expenditures were exceeding revenues.
The budget information available to the board today “is better than anything they have ever seen before,” Jordan said.
As for the teachers’ raises, Jordan said she is examining a variety of different ways to come up with the money, including possibly combining some of the county office’s smaller school sites to create economies of scale. She said she has gone out of her way to involve the board in this planning process.
The board’s newest member, Enrique Palacios, said Monday that he was content with the quality of budget information provided over the last year.
“They actually have provided, throughout the year, a tremendous amount of information about the budget,” Palacios said.
Palacios agreed with Jordan’s assessment that the board majority has political motives for threatening not to approve next year’s budget by the July 1 deadline. He said there has been bad blood between Jordan and certain board members since she was elected superintendent in 1998, defeating the candidate these board members had endorsed.
“This whole year that I’ve been on the board these board members haven’t done a damn thing to improve the quality of education (in the county),” Palacios said. “There a lot that the county can do, but it requires everyone working together.”
But Avellar maintained that he and other board members are simply fighting to have more input into the budget process.
“We’re not looking at it as an adversarial thing,” Avellar said. “Maybe (Jordan) is.”
The board will hold a special budget meeting tonight at 5 p.m. at the Alameda County Office of Education, 313 W. Winton Avenue. One item on the agenda is a possible 20 percent cut in Jordan’s salary, which Avellar said is in reaction to the board’s disappointment with Jordan’s leadership.