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Orange County Feud Shows How School Boards Are a Key Front in Culture Wars
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 1 month ago on
March 5, 2024

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California’s educational structure evolved with roles for state and county superintendents.

Conflicts arise in public education, highlighting culture wars, as seen in Orange County.

Proposed bill aims to alter school board composition, intensifying political battles.


After California became a state in 1850, two of its newly assembled Legislature’s first acts were to create a framework for public schools.

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Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Among other things, the Legislature established the offices of a state superintendent of schools and a superintendent for each county, assuming that counties would operate schools within their borders.

Eventually, however, school districts were formed as the state’s population grew. Except for a few small counties, those districts, each with its own elected school board and an appointed superintendent, became the operating entities.

The separately elected county superintendents continued, however, and their duties evolved from direct school administration to oversight of local districts, particularly of their finances, along with a few specialized education services.

Public Education Becomes Battleground for Culture Wars

In the 1950s, the Legislature added another layer of complexity by decreeing that counties also would have elected boards of education. They would have some independent functions and share others with the elected superintendent, but the latter also retained sole authority in some aspects.

The boundaries between their turf, however, were a little fuzzy. In essence, it was assumed that both had the best interests of public school students in mind and would cooperate.

Over the years, that assumption has proved true in most counties most of the time, but public education has – unfortunately – evolved into a front for culture wars between adults. A years-long feud between Orange County’s elected superintendent and its elected school board is a case in point.

Al Mijares was appointed as Orange County’s superintendent in 2012 and was easily elected to a full term in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.

In 2020, however, Mijares clashed publicly with the Republican-dominated school board as the latter endorsed reopening schools, without mandatory masking, that had been closed due to COVID-19. It was the local version of a statewide debate over school closures that persisted in California long after other states had reopened schools.

Mijares won re-election again in 2022, but had to defeat a challenger endorsed by members of the school board. Meanwhile, he had appointed a committee, dominated by union-friendly members, to draw new boundaries for county school board districts.

The committee rejected the school board’s own plan and adopted one that would make the re-election of Mijares’ rivals on the board more difficult. His critics labeled it a power grab by the superintendent. Nevertheless, conservatives have continued to dominate the board, although three of its five seats are up in this week’s primary election.

Unions Oppose Charter Schools

School closures are not the only point of conflict. Another has been the board’s willingness to approve new charter schools, drawing sharp opposition from the school unions which have generally sided with Mijares.

At one point, the board threatened to cut Mijares’ salary which, with added benefits, totals almost a half-million dollars a year. Ever since the 2022 elections, Mijares has refused to attend even a single board meeting, sending a deputy instead.

A new wrinkle in the feud emerged this year when state Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat whose district straddles the border between Orange County and Los Angeles County, introduced Senate Bill 907.

The measure, scheduled for its first committee hearing later this month, would enlarge the Orange County school board from five to seven members, bypassing a state law that requires voter approval to change the size of county school boards. SB 907 also would require school board elections to be merged with statewide elections every two years.

If enacted, it would give pro-Mijares groups a new pathway for changing the board’s ideological makeup. Newman says he wants to make the board more reflective of the county’s population while opponents see it as another power grab.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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