Santa Ana Unified School District officials were reluctant last week to share their new superintendent's salary contract, one that makes Rick Miller one of the highest-salaried school district superintendents in California, based on the latest figures from the state Department of Education.
A leading open-government expert said the district likely violated state law when it refused to release a copy of Miller’s contract, even after school board members approved it in a public meeting last week.
“This response is a practice obviously intended to keep the public in the dark about what compensation terms the superintendent candidate is seeking so citizens have no basis to question it prior to approval, which is [the citizens'] right,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for CalAware and an open-records consultant for Voice of OC.
Miller's contract includes a $300,000 salary, a $7,200 annual car allowance and other benefits — an increase of $35,000 over the previous superintendent's salary at a time of major financial problems at the district. The previous superintendent’s base salary was $265,000.
The lack of information about the contract at the time of the vote drew concern from a trustee, Cecilia Iglesias, who on Sept. 24 cast the lone dissenting vote against approving it and Miller’s appointment.
“I wasn't fully convinced of the details of the contract,” Iglesias said, according to The Orange County Register. “I felt it was rushed. I thought I didn't have enough time to make the full assessment of its impacts.”
The district's top attorney denied that officials had any intent of preventing public discourse, saying they were simply following the law as he understood it.
Board member John Palacio said that while he understands Francke’s impression, there was no intent to keep the public out of the loop.
“I think it’s easy to see it from that view. I don’t think that’s what happened. I just think it was moving quickly. We wanted to make an appointment,” said Palacio, adding that the contract is likely to be changed at the next board meeting.
He said the new superintendent’s compensation reflects the board’s effort to seek top talent.
“The salary that we’ve agreed to provide is very competitive when you consider that Santa Ana Unified is the largest school district in the county with the most number of students and most number of employees,” said Palacio.
“I want to reiterate that the motion was to approve the appointment of the superintendent and to approve the approval of the agreement as well,” board President José Hernández said just after the vote.
But district officials, on the advice of attorney Jim Romo of the Cerritos-based firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, declined to provide a copy of the contract before the meeting and for days after its approval, contending that it’s still a “draft.”
That doesn’t pass muster with Franke, who said officials are legally required to disclose the information before and after the vote.
The Ralph M. Brown Act “requires that any document relating to a proposal to be discussed or acted on at an open meeting must be available on request as soon as it has been distributed to the body unless exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act,” said Francke.
“The Public Records Act exemption for drafts applies only to the opinion portion of a document that is not preserved in the ordinary course of business,” he added. The board’s secretary “has been told to give the erroneous response she did by someone who is himself ignorant of the law or who knows the law but assumes that you do not.”
Romo, on the other hand, said he believes "that the way that the district handled those matters was complaint with the law.”
Romo said the board approved “the specific terms that had been discussed between the parties,” but are still waiting for approval by Miller’s attorney before another vote on a final agreement.
“They were given a written document in draft form that would explain the terms of the agreement,” which they approved, said Romo.
He said his decision to not disclose the record was based on a section of state law that requires school districts to provide the public with a final copy of an employment agreement.
“We were looking at it from the standpoint of the other provisions in the [California] Government Code” besides the Brown Act, said Romo. He said he couldn’t recall the exact section.
As for Francke’s explanation that the district is required to disclose the record under the Brown Act, Romo said he’d take another look at his approach.
“That’s an interesting perspective. … Let me give that some thought. We may accept your interpretation and go ahead and provide what we have at the moment, recognizing it may not be the final document,” he said on Sept. 25.
Romo authorized the document's release two days later.
Francke said the public can challenge these types of issues under the Brown Act’s new “cease and desist” provision.
That provision, which went into effect in January, “offers a way for local government bodies to avoid litigation by pledging to abandon meeting-related practices that prompt accusations of Brown Act violations — without conceding that they are unlawful,” according to a description by Francke.
“It also gives citizens the opportunity to demand and achieve such changes without having to file a lawsuit.”
Some local government agencies give the public days of advance notice on details surrounding an appointment of new executives, such as their names, copies of their contracts and and the costs to taxpayers.
Officials in Santa Ana have had transparency issues lately in appointing top executives. According to Francke, City Council members recently violated the Brown Act when they failed to announce their decision to hire incoming City Manager David Cavazos immediately after making that choice in closed session.
It later emerged that Cavazos would receive at least $700,000 in taxpayer compensation in the coming year.
The new city manager had also negotiated a $78,000 raise in December from his bosses at the time, the Phoenix City Council, who indicated they didn't want to lose him to another city.
Santa Ana Unified’s incoming superintendent is set to face several challenges at the district, including a potentially murky financial outlook.
Earlier this year, Fitch Ratings downgraded the district’s credit rating, citing “significant financial deterioration.”
“Severe cuts would be forced upon the district just to maintain its required minimum fund balance of 2% in fiscal 2015,” the firm declared in April.
This year’s budget has a multimillion-dollar deficit, forcing the district to slash its reserve funds from $47 million to $27 million, compared with a $469-million general fund budget.
That would put the district’s reserves next June at just under 6 percent of general fund spending, far below the 20 percent in 2010.
Palacio expects an improved financial picture this year, saying the state is ready to provide about $40 million in new annual revenue that wasn’t included in the budget or the ratings firm's analysis.
As for Miller, the Riverside teachers union credits him with successfully navigating that district through budget cuts and putting in place new technology and dual language programs, according to the Register.
His contract at Santa Ana Unified is set to run through June 2017.
With 57,000 students, Santa Ana Unified is Orange County’s largest school district and the sixth largest in California.