Orange County voters haven’t actually had to vote for a county superintendent in over 20 years, a job that’s traditionally been shrouded behind a veil of bureaucracy amid bigger races on the ballot.
Until this year.
The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have shined a spotlight on the role school boards and superintendents play in education, pushing motivated voters out to meetings and questioning the systems their kids are taught in like never before.
Now, that same push is leading to a new discussion on the county’s top education official-the county superintendent.
Under state law, the superintendent is responsible for overseeing the budget of every school district in the county, conducting school inspections and managing the county department of education.
While local school districts handle the day to day operations, the superintendent gets to approve their budgets alongside their local control and accountability plans (LCAP).
However, the county board of education and superintendent have found themselves increasingly at odds with each other, arguing over who has the final authority when it comes to schools.
The department provides local school districts with “services necessary for their operations, including professional development, budgeting assistance and oversight, high-speed internet access and security, legal guidance, payroll systems and student enrichment,” along with other services according to Ian Hanigan, a spokesperson for the department of education.
The superintendent’s job is also one of the highest paid elected positions in Orange County. According to Transparent California, Al Mijares, the current superintendent, received over $450,000 between pay and benefits in 2020, the latest year complete salary data was made available.
By comparison, members of the county board of supervisors make between $250-$260,000 a year in total compensation.
While Mijares has been in office for nearly a decade he’s never actually had to compete for it. He was appointed by the county board of education in 2012 and was reelected unopposed in 2014 and 2018.
His predecessor didn’t have to compete either.
A Voice of OC review found that only one candidate at a time has run for the position since at least 2002 according to the county registrar of voters’ archives.
That all changed when schools shuttered their doors in 2020 and moved online.
Orange County first made national headlines in 2020 after the county board of education approved a study written by the California Policy Center that called on students to return to classrooms without masks, and some of the county’s largest school districts have repeatedly considered defying state mandates with mixed response from parents.
In an interview with Voice of OC last week, Mijares praised the county’s response to the Covid-19 shutdowns and said he wanted to focus on keeping students safe as they make up the education losses from online learning.
“I think ultimately the goal really is to empower students so they take responsibility for their own learning,” Mijares said. “It’s what good pedagogy does, you move kids from what is complex to simple, a complex process becomes simple and students are now empowered to continue learning on their own.”
Mijares also pointed to a poll released by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies in February that found half of Orange County residents surveyed gave their schools either an A or B grade, the highest percentage of any county examined, with only 15% giving a D or F grade.
Mijares also brought up his support of charter schools in Orange County, pointing to seven charters that had been approved over his tenure as superintendent and calling it a “mistake,” for anyone to claim he was not in favor of charters.
Mijares’ challenger is Stefan Bean, a partially paralyzed Vietnamese immigrant and former charter school superintendent who currently serves on the board of the Orange County Classical Academy, the charter school program run by Dr. Jeff Barke, husband of board of education president Mari Barke.
Bean said his top priority in the campaign is to give parents options for choices beyond public school, saying teachers unions and districts have shut out many parents with an “elitist attitude.”
“There’s been a trend where parents are painted as the villains. They’ve been shut out of board meetings and criticized in board meetings,” Bean said in a phone call with Voice of OC last Tuesday. “Parents ought to have a right to place their children in the best setting for them, a charter school, a private school, home school, a traditional public school.”
Bean also promised more town halls for parents to weigh in on curriculum in their children’s classroom, claiming kindergarteners were being taught sex ed.
“If you look at some of those (teaching) standards, it has shocked parents in terms of what they may allow,” Bean said.
When asked by Voice of OC if he knew of any sex education in Orange County kindergarten classrooms, Bean raised complaints with a sex and gender education presentation given to high school students in the Los Alamitos School District, which can be viewed here.
Bean couldn’t provide evidence to support any of his claims and tried to walk back his claims of a Huntington Beach school district providing sex education to kindergarteners after the interview, claiming it had been posted a couple years ago and must have been taken down.
He also pointed reporters to a website called brenda4kids.com to find out more on the issue.
The website is run by a former California schoolteacher that claims to “pull back the curtain on what’s really going on in public education,” and asks visitors to sign a petition directing tax dollars to religious and secular private schools.
When asked what the biggest difference between him and Mijares was, Bean strongly criticized a series of lawsuits between Mijares and the board of education filed over the past few years, arguing over which one has the ultimate authority for classrooms in the county that have cost taxpayers over $4 million with no end in sight.
“We don’t need to use student money to file a lawsuit against the school board,” Bean said. “An elected superintendent and an elected board ought to be able to work together and collaborate and be seen as one unit and one team on behalf of the county and on behalf of the students. That is not what I’ve seen in the last four years.”
A spokesperson for the department of education confirmed that none of the lawsuits between the board and superintendent were filed by Mijares, though he has directed the department of education to continue its defense in the litigation.
When asked the same question, Mijares said his biggest difference from Bean was job experience.
“I think he was responsible for a few thousand students. But this is 500,000 students,” Mijares said. “If his world existed around a few thousand students, some of our high schools alone are 4,000 students. Does that mean you now have the experience on a broader level to be able to manage a larger system?”
While Aspire Public Schools, the charter school program Bean worked for, does not list its total enrollment numbers online, the maximum number of students that would’ve been under Bean’s supervision was 4,560 according to the website’s FAQ on school sizes.
Both sides have picked up a series of high profile endorsements, with four of the five board of education members endorsing Bean’s campaign alongside the Lincoln Club and Leandra Blades, a highly controversial member of the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District board of trustees.
Mijares has picked up two dozen endorsements from both sides of the aisle according to his website, including county sheriff Don Barnes, Congressman Lou Correa, and the superintendents of the Anaheim Union High School District and Santa Ana Unified School District, two of the county’s largest public districts.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.