Ken Williams: Bringing Fiscal Discipline to Orange County Schools

Last Thursday, the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) passed a budget for 2019-2020 with reductions in the spending that was requested by Orange County Department of Education Superintendent Al Mijares.

Some might be concerned that a reduction in education department spending could hurt our kids.

In fact, the opposite is true.

We cut the budget to help our students by scaling back the department’s excessive political and conference travel spending.

Significantly, our budget cuts do not touch spending that affects the quality of education, such as teacher compensation or school funding.

Rather, we have simply made tailored — and overdue — reductions to the county’s lobbying, conferences and travel budgets.

Consider the more than $150,000 that the county education department spent on lobbying last year, much of it in support of Assembly Bill 1505, which threatens charter schools’ growth and long-term existence.

Despite the board’s opposition to AB1505, the county education department and its lobbyists worked to undermine charter schools in Orange County.

They teamed up with the California Teachers Associations to ask county school districts, superintendents and school board members in April 2019 to write letters of support to the state Assembly in Sacramento to support AB1505.

The department used county staff and OCDE budget money earmarked for lobbying to implement an anti-charter school agenda.

These lobbying efforts against charter schools run counter to the expressed values of the board.

We believe that charter schools and parental choice are vital components of the best possible education environment for OC residents.

Indeed, charters are some of the best performing and most in-demand schools in the county.

In addition, department staff spent more than $1.2 million on out-of-county travel junkets last year, which are a nice perk, but have little to no value for improving student academic performance.

These travel expenses, which cover the costs of hotel rooms, meals, rental cars and conference administrative fees, are not consistent with the department’s budget priorities and the funding shortfalls for county schools.

The department also exposed itself as a poor steward of county fiscal resources during its disastrous and unilateral lawsuit initiated in 2016 against the Orange County Employment Retirement System (OCERS) over a pension dispute.

The board was kept at a distance from this lawsuit that was based on little more than Mijares’ own far-fetched legal conjecture.

This quixotic lawsuit ended up costing taxpayers more than $2.4 million, with OCDE and OCERS each incurring about $1.2 million in legal fees — funds which should have gone to students and teachers.

The department lost that suit in 2017, then wasted more money filing an appeal, and lost again earlier this year.

Throughout the lawsuit, the department ignored my objections that as county trustees the board should have oversight or at least some input on this expensive legal adventure.

The budget we adopted, with targeted cuts to travel and lobbying, brings some fiscal discipline to counter the department’s long history otherwise.

Expect to hear dire claims of “school budget cuts” from supporters of the status quo who would like to keep their lobbying and travel perks.

But in reality we are simply cutting the fat.

Orange County residents, parents and students should support the board’s efforts, and their counterparts across Southern California should demand the same from their own local elected officials.

Ken L. Williams serves on the Orange County Board of Education, representing District 3. Read Ken's full bio HERE


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