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With a recent lawsuit against the state and national headlines over a back to school recommendation, Orange County’s Board of Education has really made waves for a panel that doesn’t actually hold much real authority.

In an interview last week, county superintendent Al Mijares said that the board members’ decision to endorse a report calling for a return to school with no masks or social distancing scared and confused parents in the county.

“The board, to be very frank, created a lot of confusion. People saw the (report) that was approved and they were aghast. In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a public reaction like this caused,” Mijares said. 

“We are to this day getting bombarded with emails and phone calls, even letters that people walk into the office and they try to somehow get word to us.” 

Board members stood by their earlier report, stating that it was their job to provide parents the information needed to make their own choices. 

“Parents should make informed choices to send their children to school in a traditional classroom environment or distance learning based on their own family circumstances and level of comfort with the potential risk of their child contracting COVID at school,” said Ken Williams, board president, reading aloud a statement he said was from the board as a whole at Tuesday’s public meeting and posted on the Board of Education’s website Wednesday morning.  

In a phone call Wednesday evening, board trustee Tim Shaw, who came into office just this month, agreed with Mijares that there had been a lot of confusion, and said that the guidelines were not forcing a return to schools.

“The media didn’t fully report what I thought were very important points to be made,” Shaw said. “It was only a recommendation, it wasn’t binding to anybody.”

Shaw also encouraged parents who had children with underlying health conditions to keep their kids home.

“We encouraged local districts to provide distance education so that no one was being compelled to do anything they didn’t want to do,” Shaw said. “The president and vice president of our board formed an executive committee, they wanted to have some kind of recommendations to local districts.”

The board made headlines again at their meeting this week, where they announced their plans to sue Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Public Health Officer Dr. Sonia Angell over the decision to require purely online learning for counties on the state coronavirus watchlist. 

Counties on the watchlist, which includes Orange County, must be off the list for two weeks before they can return to in person instruction. Several private schools have petitioned the county public health agency for waivers to reopen, but none have been issued as of Wednesday. 

While the board’s decisions have triggered a massive debate in Orange County around the issue of returning to school, few people realize that the board holds very few powers. 

In some counties, the county board’s largest power usually comes from the ability to appoint a superintendent to run the county department of education, which handles payroll, legal and fiscal guidance for school districts and helping several smaller student populations, including continuation schools.  

But in Orange County, the superintendent is an elected position, and is up on the ballot every four years. Mijares was appointed as superintendent in 2012, and ran uncontested for the superintendent seat in 2014 and 2018. 

The only powers allocated to the county Board of Education, according to the California Education code, is a final approval on the department of education’s budget and purchasing property. 

In Orange County, they also serve as an appeals committee for inter-district transfers, expulsions and charter school applications. 

The board and the department disagree regularly, and are currently embroiled in two lawsuits, one over the appointment of the department’s legal counsel and the other over an attempt by the Board’s majority to submit a budget to the state without Mijares’ signature. 

“With an elected superintendent and an elected board of education, the dynamics that exist at the county level are unique,” Mijares said in a statement on the second lawsuit. 

Board members receive anywhere between $24,000 and nearly $34,000 for their work, most of which comes from their insurance costs including medical, dental, vision and life insurance policies.

The county board holds no power over employment contracts, district budgets, or the department’s expenditures throughout the year, which are all handled by the superintendent’s office. 

The decision over return plans come from the 27 individual school districts with their own separate boards, many of which came out directly against the county board’s guidelines and said they would be offering fully online opportunities before it was mandated by the governor. 

The individual districts also collaborated with the department to produce their own set of guidelines weeks before the board of education released theirs, calling for the extensive use of masks and social distancing in classrooms. 

Individual districts control their own budgets, which are approved and monitored by the department of education, as well as choices on curriculum and control over most of the district’s management, including the hiring of the district superintendent. 

Annemarie Randle-Trejo, president of the Anaheim Union High School District board, said that the county’s announcement didn’t change any of their fall planning. 

“The county board has no jurisdiction over us, we started working on our plans way before we even got what the California department was doing,” Randle-Trejo said in a phone call with Voice of OC last week. “Because we did all that work, we have a model we’ve already worked on that we can go to when it’s safe, and only when it’s safe.”

She said that while many parents hadn’t reached out with concerns over the county board’s report, she strongly disagreed with the recommendations. 

“It’s very disconcerting and disappointing that the board members there really aren’t listening to the districts, and aren’t listening to the superintendent’s concerns,” Randle-Trejo said. “Their philosophy is way far away from the general public.”

However, many members of the public have argued in support of the board’s proposals, praising them for giving Orange County residents another option.

TJ Fuentes, second vice chair for the Republican Party in Orange County, said he respected the board’s efforts in fighting for disadvantaged families that could be adversely affected by school closures.

“If schools remain closed, it will be devastating for children and communities across California, with single mothers and low-income families being hit the hardest. I find it incredibly  disappointing that the most progressive state, with strongest Teacher’s Union in the Country cannot safely reopen their schools. Especially when we see other countries and states prove that it can be done.  For that reason, I certainly appreciate the board members using their bully pulpits to advocate for the reopening of schools in an attempt to stand up for families that will be severely harmed from these shutdown,” Fuentes said.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada

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