Eleazar Elizondo Demonstrates His Chops Analyzing OCBOE Issue


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Bill Habermehl

"Hey, EZ -- here's a tough one for you! Did the Superintendent make the right call about these salary increases? You have 24 hours to reply. Good luck!"

I wanted to get a little more information about OC Board of Education District 1 candidate Eleazar Elizondo — the link is to his campaign web page — who with that combination of names either is nicknamed “EZ” or should be.

I did not, though, want to write a puff piece.  Elizondo, a former Santa Ana elementary school teacher who has worked with Barbara Boxer, will have to be on the top of his game to beat his rivals for the seat, so I wanted to throw him a fastball and see if he could hit.

Those rivals for the County BOE seat, by the way, include one home-schooling anti-science gay-bashing Republican and one occasional Los Angeles County community college tech school art safety instructor with blogs of his own and no compunction against using them to defame his enemies; a dismal legal past that you’d have to go to Liberal OC to read about; and a tenuous-to-casual-at-best relationship to reality, taste, perspective, and truth.  (If a car were going too slowly in front of him, he’d probably denounce it as an “ultra-liberal” out of habit.)

Ironically, both of those candidates get to call themselves “teachers” on the ballot, while former full-time teacher Elizondo does not.  A fourth candidate, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Ken Khanh Nguyen, does not seem to have a website or any web-available relationship to any such commission, but I’m sure that the Secretary of State’s office checked it out.  (As an aside: for those OJ Blog readers wondering why the RSS feeds for the blogs belonging to one of those candidates have stopped appearing in this site’s right column, it’s because said candidate keeps generating story titles that serve as often unfair and potentially defamatory attacks on the opponents in his election.  If that candidate wants to use his “news and opinion” blogs for blatant personal campaign purposes, he can do as much as his “moral reasoning” will allow, but there’s no reason that he should be able to spread his self-serving distortions into the columns of other people’s blogs.)

As I was contemplating what question to throw at Elizondo, I happened to come across a good one in a December 2011 story in the Register — a real, honest-to-god, hard issue of the sort that Board of Education members will have to handle.   It seems that there has been a controversy about some salary increases given to certain school officials and Board Members had disagreed about how to handle it.  From the article:

Four top administrators for the Orange County Department of Education have received pay increases of as much as 7.2 percent – or $12,996 annually – a move that officials say stems from job promotions, but which some education leaders are questioning as fiscally irresponsible.

Orange County schools Superintendent Bill Habermehl, who granted the [4.7% to 7.2%] salary increases, said in an interview that the promotions are part of a sweeping, multi-year departmental reorganization that has netted hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings overall. The salary adjustments will cost a combined $43,332 annually.

… [the following quotes are reproduced from the article in a different order to give a better sense of the conversation at hand]

[Habermehl said:]  ”I changed their job titles to reflect their work load, and commensurate with that, they got an increase in pay. I want them to be compensated adequately for the work they do.”

[Board Member Ken Williams Jr. said:] “The lower-salary workers, such as teachers, are being asked to work more and longer, and they’re not getting paid more. Philosophically, that’s how I look at it.”

[Board Vice-Chair Elizabeth Parker said:] ”These aren’t, ‘We picked out five people we really loved and gave them more money.’ When you take on way more responsibilities, then it’s not a raise – it’s a reclassification [into wholly different jobs that come with new titles, new responsibilities and new pay scales].  This is a continuation of our restructuring. Over the last nine years, we’ve gotten less and less money, so we’ve lost significant staff and had to maneuver people into new responsibilities. By saving nearly half a million dollars, you have to give promotions and make realignments.”

[Board of Education member David Boyd said:]  ”It’s disappointing that we find ourselves in this situation [regarding the newly promoted senior employees.  Are these truly new positions that justify a new salary increase, or is it a matter of smoke and mirrors? That's what we need to find out."

As I read this, I thought that it was a great question to ask!  This was a real issue, the sort that Board of Education members actually have to grapple with, the sort that could lose one support either way one went, and the sort that could be met with either slogans or thoughtfulness.  So I e-mailed Elizondo with a link to the article and told him that I'd like his views on it -- in a hurry.

(Can we all agree up front that this was not a softball question?)

Here's the response I got, within one day, from Elizondo:

My first reaction is why does the leadership of the Dept of Ed appear to be split on these raises. [Ask] what is the process and if this is the right thing to do, then do so; if not, then do not.

As the article lays out the decision making process, then it appears Habermehl is within his powers to make these raises, but clearly he does not seem to have all the support of the Board.

Williams’s saber-rattling is interesting; though I’m not sure under what, if any, circumstances he would support pay increases. My understanding is these people have tremendous responsibilities, experience and large staffs they oversee, so the question does not to seem to be about merit as opposed to timing and the economy; both issues which require important consideration.  After all, this is public money; “how exactly does this improve instruction?” is the standard that most voters, including myself, would use to understand these pay increases.

Finally, with the other two raises “on deck”, some time and effort needs to be spent on clarifying the process and legal responsabilities. Does the Board need to be considered and included in these decisions?  Is it appropriate for the Board to try to extend its power through the budgetary process into areas which are not part of their scope of responsibilities?  Do new processes and procudures need to be created and implimented to help govern these decision?  What is the criteria which justifies these raises?

A significant part of this story is the lack of understanding of regional government on the whole, and the County Board of Education in particular.  Water Board may be the only level of government that people know less than the county level of government. Very few people really know what these regional entities do and what their relationship is to local and state government; this of course fosters a sense of suspicion which may or may not be warranted.

I believe someone like myself, who has a deep understanding of governemnt, as well as an appreciation of how the public percieves government action, would be an asset to my neighbors and tax payers as well as to the men and women who work for the OC Dept of Ed.  Most importantly, my focus would always be on the quality of instruction talking place in our classrooms.

So there you have it: Elizondo recognizes the legitimate competing objectives on either side without presenting either of them in hyperventilating and ideological terms, and also offers welcome comments on proper process, including the value (but not the absolute value) of a governing Board’s deference to its hired managers to make such decisions.  This is — well, I can think of only one word that can properly describe it:

“Adult.”

I know that this won’t stir the blood of people who aren’t that interested in public policy and public administration, but while Elizondo’s response isn’t sexy — you’ll notice the lack of simply declarative attack phrases that would make emotionally charged bumper stickers — for people who actually care about solving public problems this is the sort of analysis that makes us want to jump out of our chairs and do the Chicken Dance.  “AN ADULT!  An ADULT is running for Board of Education!  Fire the cannons, ring the bells!  Orange County may have an adult in office!”

It doesn’t even matter so much to me where Elizondo might ultimately come down on the issue; I’d need to do a lot more study, of the sort that Trustees Parker and Boyd (from their different sides of the issue) suggest, before knowing what I felt about it myself.  (Williams, as Elizondo gently implies, doesn’t really seem like the studying type.  For him, “don’t spend more” is apparently an easy call, requiring no real evidence.)  The exciting thing to me is that Elizondo, in temperate language, having identified appropriate factors and trade-offs, is talking about going about making such a decision in the right way.

That’s good.  Given Elizondo’s competition, that’s really good.

I was probably going to root for Elizondo anyway out of process of elimination, given the censorious Republican, the mysterious Parks Commissioner, and the freaky and untrustworthy self-styled libertarian (who makes his mark bashing unions and then, on his campaign page, starts off by “proudly” listing his own alleged union affiliation without including a single disparaging comment.)  But I hate working by process of elimination; I prefer to believe in something, in someone.

I’m going to throw Elizondo some more fastballs in the weeks to come and see how he does with them.  (If his opponents want me to pitch to them as well, they know where to find me and ask.)  But it’s looking more like I won’t have to root for “EZ” out of any process of elimination — I can root for him because he actually seems to know how to do the job right. What a happy discovery!

[Disclosures: I'm not only on the Orange County Democratic Party Executive Board (for which I do not speak) and a candidate for office myself, but I was friendly acquaintance of Elizabeth Parker's back when she was Liz Dorn and we were both in our early teenage years (as she may or may not recall.)  I don't know her present party affiliation and haven't spoken to her, I'd guess, since 1975, and to my knowledge none of this played a factor in how I viewed her approach to this issue.  I mention this out of an excess of caution and because when I saw her photo in researching this story, but before I noticed her continued use of "Dorn" in her name, I thought to myself "hey, that looks a little like Liz Dorn" -- and I want credit for it!]

 


About Greg Diamond

Worker's rights attorney now moving into "good governance" litigation. North Vice Chair of Democratic Party of Orange County and occasional candidate. Proud to be prolix. Unless otherwise specifically stated, his writings never speak for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Brea but generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and without compensation, although in 2014 he may receive some compensation for campaign consulting and fundraising for the campaign of Jorge Lopez for Orange County Assessor.