A majority of the Orange County Board of Education has for years clashed with Orange County Department of Education Superintendent Al Mijares, taking him to court and recently endorsing a candidate to run against him in the June 7 elections.
Now some board members want to lower Mijares’ salary.
On Wednesday, the board is due to consider a resolution that could reset the superintendent’s salary effective July 1. Mijares’ current annual salary is $382,387, which includes a 10% stipend for his years of service. His benefits package, including health insurance and retirement contributions, adds about $85,000 more.
It is not yet clear to what extent a reduction could be envisaged.
In an interview this week, Mijares noted that the board set his salary in 2012 when he became superintendent. Since then his pay has increased with cost of living allowances and other increases.
Mijares was careful not to criticize board members or discuss what prompted the proposed resolution.
“I don’t want to speculate on their motives,” he said.
In recent years, the conservative majority of the five-member Board of Education has engaged in a power struggle with Mijares. Council members Mari Barke, Lisa Sparks, Tim Shaw and Ken Williams want more control over the ministry’s budget and other issues.
In 2019, the council sued Mijares over who should have the final say on the county’s education budget. This trial is ongoing. Another lawsuit filed by board members against Mijares – over the hiring of a lawyer – was settled by both sides a year ago. The legal bill, paid by taxpayers, was $3.2 million.
Williams, who has been on the board since 1996, has long been at odds with Mijares. Williams has led efforts against state-mandated programs and rules — including sex education and, in recent years, face masks — that Mijares has been legally required to enforce.
Mijares, like the board members, is an elected official. Only voters can remove him from office. And the four board members who oppose Mijares have made it clear they want someone else in the seat.
They officially endorse Stefan Bean, Mijares’ first electoral opponent since becoming superintendent. He ran unopposed in 2014 and 2018.
Bean, a former superintendent of a chain of charter schools in California, has ties to Barke, the board chairman. Bean serves on the board of directors of Orange County Classical Academy, a conservative charter school in Orange founded by Mari Barke’s husband, Jeff Barke. This public charter, which recently gained OCBE approval to expand, is a member school of Hillsdale College, a Christian institution in Michigan that promotes conservative ideology and, according to a survey conducted in Exhibition magazine last month, promotes an “openly Christian reading of American history and the American Constitution.”
Meanwhile, the majority of the board has been discussing the superintendent’s salary for several months. By law, the council can set a salary before the superintendent takes office, but it cannot retroactively lower it, according to council attorney Greg Rolen.
The resolution under consideration Wednesday has a blank space for how much the Superintendent of Schools would earn during the 2022-2026 elected term. Board members are expected to provide that figure on Wednesday.
In a board presentation last month, Rolen said Mijares was the highest-paid county school district superintendent in California. The next highest, he said, is superintendent of Santa Clara Unified, who earned $352,827 in 2020. Williams compared Mijares’ salary to that of Governor Newsom and other state officials. , whose wages are lower.
“Should superintendents earn more than the governor who earns $210,000 a year here in California, or a congressman earning $174,000. Should these superintendents earn these huge salaries? Williams said at the January 5 board meeting.
Mijares’ annual salary is $347,625, but like other managers, teachers, and classified employees, the superintendent receives a longevity allowance for his student years. With more than 30 years of service, that adds another 10% to his salary.
These longevity allowances were approved by the Board of Directors in 2017 as an incentive to retain and recruit employees. The only current member then on the board was Williams, and he voted against giving Mijares the longevity award.
In his role, Mijares provides guidance and support to 28 school districts as well as the county department’s own programs for alternative and special education students. Orange County has approximately 475,000 students in more than 600 schools. The county school district does not oversee or control other county districts.
Superintendents of Orange County’s largest school districts earn base salaries comparable to Mijares. In 2020, according to the state comptroller’s most recent data, Capistrano Unified Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte earned $374,539 and Santa Ana Unified Superintendent Jerry Almendarez earned $336,815. This does not include their pension and health contributions and other benefits.
Board member Beckie Gomez has been the only director to repeatedly ask for more information about Mijares’ benefits in recent months, pointing out that he does not have all the benefits that other zone superintendents.
Unlike many other superintendents in Orange County, for example, Mijares does not receive a mileage allowance while driving in the county or medical benefits after his retirement. She also questioned how fair it was to make salary comparisons with other county districts in California, where the cost of living isn’t as expensive as in Orange County.
“If we want to make comparisons, we need to get the full measure of their compensation, including for their retirement, moving expenses, car allowance and other benefits,” Gomez said in an interview this week.
As for the board’s motive behind the decision to cut Mijares’ salary, Gomez said of his colleagues: “I don’t know what their goal is. It was not clear.
“If the goal is to reduce costs, there are other things we can do, like looking at the benefits of consulting,” she said.
Is there a personal vendetta against Mijares?
“It makes it feel personal because there’s no stated purpose as to why this agenda item came up,” Gomez said.
Barke, the board chair, declined to say Tuesday why and how the resolution was passed, adding that she will bring up the matter at Wednesday’s meeting.
Mijares, in an earlier meeting, said he never questioned his salary, which was set by the board when he was first appointed to the position in 2012 after the resignation of the former superintendent of the department. At the time, he recently told board members, he was making more money from his previous job, which provided full tuition for his children. “So I lost that.”
Now, the council looks set to cut the superintendent’s salary for whoever wins the elected job on June 7.
The council meets Wednesday, April 6 at 2:30 p.m. at the Department of Education office in Costa Mesa. The meeting can also be viewed online. A vote on the resolution is scheduled for after 5 p.m.