Quiet Lawndale became a raucous L.A. 'burb last night (see VIDEO, below) as KFI's John and Ken broadcast live and furious parents shouted "You must Go!" to the Centinela Valley school board. Residents insisted board members explain how Superintendent Jose Fernandez got $663,365 for his modest job overseeing a working-class district of just four schools.
In what appeared to be violations of Brown Act laws, the board abandoned a published agenda that promised a lengthy "public comment" period, vanishing into a closed session for two and a half hours. Then, amidst loud boos, it reappeared with a "special" agenda, voting to hire a top Fernandez aide, Bob Cox, as interim superintendent. That set off new shouts of "You must go!"
The board ignored new questions raised by CBS2 that Fernandez is being given $56,000 a year in whole life insurance that he can cash like a savings account. Then the board essentially voted to investigate itself:
"They went and hid - classic, classic!" cried out Jay Gould, a resident, as the board disappeared into closed session. Furious Sharon Curto, a 46-year veteran teacher, told reporters that her special ed colleague at Lawndale High School had been "denied a ream of lined paper - a ream! - for her special ed students" because the district has so little money for the classrooms. After the board came out of closed session very late last night, one man held up two rolls of toilet paper and loudly announced he was donating them to the district, a reaction to rumors that the four schools don't have sufficient bathroom supplies.
Several members of the crowd confirmed that the FBI, which is now investigating the district, was seen on campus this week.
In one of the few moves last night that did not inspire loud shouts of anger, the board voted to find a company to conduct a "forensic" investigation into who came up with the contract details that handed Fernandez so much money, and how.
Former school board member Sandra Suarez - who voted in 2009 for the contract - stood amidst the audience during the lengthy closed session, assuring people that she did not grasp the meaning of the confusingly described contract loopholes that padded Fernandez's "base" income.
Suarez alleged, rather, that construction giant TELACU, one of the nation's largest Latino-owned businesses, "controls this school district. District lawyers who are close to TELACU told us the contract was a good idea, and unfortunately we believed them."
TELACU's officials were not immediately available. An aide there said, "Somebody will return your call if they decide to make a comment."
TELACU's well-connected CEO David Lizarraga is an Obama appointee to an influential community development board within the U.S. Department of Treasury.
The mounting verbal attacks against TELACU stem from revelations earlier this year in the Daily Breeze that TELACU in 2008 made an odd decision: The firm began bankrolling the elections of Centinela Valley Union School District board members - one of the most obscure, and least influential, school boards in Los Angeles County, which was at that time made up of everyday citizens with few pretensions of rising in politics.
Board members elected thanks to TELACU's infusions of campaign funding soon awarded TELACU a lucrative contract to manage $200 million in voter-approved construction bond projects around the district.
Superintendent Fernandez, who is now on a paid leave ordered by the embattled school board, was a top ally of TELACU's and helped the firm land the bond-management contract.
Former board member Suarez alleged last night that Fernandez "pulled the wool over us - I think he had it all planned out. And now the FBI shows up, flashing their badges!"
Fernandez's total compensation is roughly double that of LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy.
For comparison, Fernandez is responsible for four high schools and 6,600 students in working-class Hawthorne and Lawndale. LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, who is paid $384,948, is responsible for 900 schools, 580,000 students and 33,000 teachers in a sprawling district that educates 1 in every 10 children in California.
Fernandez's "base pay" is $271,000, and his added benefits roll up to nearly $400,000. The district apparently felt that was not enough, handing Fernandez a $910,000 loan at two percent interest so he could purchase a high-end Ladera Heights home, a loan one experienced realtor described as "nearly free money."
After weeks of uproar, nobody in charge has been able to explain why.
Then David Goldstein at CBS2/KCAL9 this week unveiled Fernandez's unusual whole life insurance contract paid by the district. It will be worth $150,000 in a few years - and Goldstein reported it can be cashed out at any time, like a savings account.
That means the supe is taking in something approaching $800,000 per year.
The huge compensation for Fernandez was originally revealed Feb. 9 by The Daily Breeze, whose reporters last night live-blogged and videotaped the wild meeting.
The rest of the fine print in his contract includes:
- a shortened work year of 215 days
- more money if he has to work beyond 215 days
- an anti-firing clause requiring a vote of four of the five board members to get rid of him
- an extra five years of service, or "air time," padded onto his actual time on the job, to increase his retirement pension payout
- an annual raise, each year, of 9 percent
One of Fernandez's most outspoken critics, Jack Foreman, president of the Centinela Valley Secondary Teachers Association, last night said of the board's surprise move to hire an insider interim superintendent, without conducting a search:
"We cannot have these sudden hirings of 'interim' superintendents who then become the permanent superintendents who then become a disaster. This is the pattern from this school board - no search for a superintendent who knows what he or she is doing!"
In February, Foreman, who is also a counselor at Hawthorne High School, told the Weekly:
"We, the teachers union, are absolutely furious ... We've been in a budget crisis. We've had layoffs, cutbacks in programs, our adult school has been reduced, we've lost home-ed classes, ceramics is no longer taught, foreign language is cut back. In this climate in which we have been sacrificing and cutting and trying to do with less, we have a superintendent who is enriching himself off of the school district. This is unacceptable."
Foreman alleges that Fernandez, a former Inglewood city councilman, was vindictive toward those who spoke out against the district's large construction projects and other board decisions: "People who have spoken out in the past have been transferred to other schools, to a less attractive assignment or they've had their programs been cut. I have much more leeway to speak since I'm the president of the teacher's union."
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As cars last night piled into the parking lot of Lawndale's imposing performing arts center, where the school board meeting was held, they passed construction sheds emblazoned with TELACU's logo.
Calvin Alagot also contributed to this story.