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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Centinela Valley school superintendent gives himself a pay cut to $295,000

Jose A. Fernandez is superintendent of the Centinela Valley High School District, which serves the communities of Hawthorne and Lawndale in Southwest L.A. County.
Jose A. Fernandez is superintendent of the Centinela Valley High School District, which serves the communities of Hawthorne and Lawndale in Southwest L.A. County. Centinela Valley Union High School District

Centinela Valley Union High School District Superintendent Jose A. Fernandez told an angry crowd of parents Tuesday night that he would forego pay increases and bonuses, reducing his annual compensation to $295,000.

His announcement was at the district's board of trustees meeting, the second held since early February, when public records obtained by the Daily Breeze newspaper revealed Fernandez took in $663,000 in total compensation last year.

Some 300 people flooded the district's performing arts center Tuesday for an hours-long raucous public comment session, said parent Amanda Schmidt, who attended. She said the board apologized to the public for Fernandez's contract and promised to revisit the matter. Among the unhappy residents was a man who threw dollar bills onto the stage to punctuate his message that the district was interested only in his money.

The revelations of the superintendent's large salary have shaken the 6,000-student district, which consists of three high schools and a continuation high school in the Hawthorne and Lawndale area of Southwest Los Angeles.

The district serves a lower-income, largely immigrant population and was on the verge of insolvency in 2007, when the County Office of Education stepped in to help stabilize its finances. The board installed Fernandez in 2008. He had formerly headed the district's now-closed adult school.

During his tenure, the district passed bond measures and a parcel tax that are now fueling a $200 million construction program at the high schools.

Former Centinela Valley board member Sandra Suarez was a graduate of the district's Leuzinger High School and has sent nine of her ten children there. She won election in 2008 and was among the board members who voted to hire Fernandez.

Suarez said Fernandez told her he had modeled his contract on standard versions available from a professional school superintendents association. The contract provided him $271,000 base pay, allowances for phone, car, travel, conferences and personal expenses, bonus pay for advanced degrees and a nine percent annual pay raise for every year he received a satisfactory review or no review at all.

The board also reimbursed him the $215,000 cost of his purchase of several additional years of seniority for his pension plan.

Suarez said she was "green" in relying on other board members who had more business experience than her in approving the employment contract.

"I have to say I feel I made a mistake," Suarez said. "At the time I left the board, [Fernandez] was making about $300,000. But once I found out about this stuff, I did fight back."

Suarez is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the district to overturn a parcel tax. She had also protested the district's construction plans that threatened the future of some of the original 1936 buildings at Leuzinger High School.

She was particularly upset at learning that her successors on the board approved a 40-year, two- percent home loan that Fernandez used to buy a $910,000 house.

The Fernandez pay package was superior to similar posts in neighboring districts, both large and small. The superintendent of the small Redondo Beach Unified School District in 2012-13 received total compensation of $249,000, according to pay records from the County Office of Education.

John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has about 1,000 schools, gets a $330,000 base salary.

The salary exposé turned out to be advantageous for the Centinela Valley teachers' union.

Before the revelations, the union was stalled in negotiations trying to get more than the one percent salary raise offered by the district, said Jack Foreman, president of the Centinela Valley Secondary Teachers Association. Once the stories surfaced about the superintendent's rich contract, the district offered the teachers a 4.1 percent raise. With that deal nailed down, Foreman said the union decided against calling for the superintendent to step down.

The salary disclosure also got the attention of a state legislator. Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) is drafting a law that would make top school officials' pay more transparent. It would require school districts to post superintendent's employment contracts on their websites and require board members to go through ethics training. It would also restrict generous home loans.

"With the [Centinela Valley District] serving a predominantly low-income immigrant community, I was very concerned that the school district was basically serving as a bank for the superintendent in providing this low-interest home loan," Muratsuchi said. He represents a neighboring assembly district and chairs an assembly school finance committee.

Amanda Schmidt, a parent, has been observing the low scores and political situation at the district.

"The numbers have not looked good to me for raising my children and having them [attend those schools]," Schmidt said. "I still have not seen an environment that I would want my kids to go to."

She is looking for an alternative for her two children when they become high school-age.

"I'm disenchanted," she said. "I'm also suffering from apathy of just not wanting to deal with it, and that hurts to admit."

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