By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
BERKELEY -- The person who wins the race to lead the Alameda County Office of Education will inherit a $23.6 million budget bonus on yearly expenditures of $43 million -- a rare yet enviable position for the head of a public agency.
Five candidates are running to succeed Sheila Jordan in a race for the superintendent job the Alameda County League of Women Voters has called "one of those invisible elective offices where voters often have to vote without being familiar with the people, the job or its powers."
Jordan is stepping down after 16 years.
The extra money the new superintendent will inherit is an ending fund balance to the yearly budget that was built up over time and "enables the county office to plan for the unknown and to invest in the expansion of service and facilities," a spokesman for the office said. Not mentioned is the $6.5 million in unfunded liabilities for future retiree health benefits.
The race will determine who gets to manage 266 employees at the agency for an annual pay of approximately $220,000. If none of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the June 3 election, a runoff will be held in November.
The little-known agency is responsible for educating some 600 students who are in juvenile hall, on probation or who have been expelled from one of the 18 school districts in the county. In addition, the superintendent oversees the budgets of all the school districts, distributes property taxes to school districts and processes school district payrolls.
The office trains teachers at school districts that don't provide their own training. It also lobbies for education in Sacramento.
Four of the five candidates -- Jeff Bowser, Naomi Eason, Helen Foster and Karen Monroe -- have either master's or doctoral degrees in educational leadership. A fifth candidate, Ursula Reed, has a master's degree in speech pathology.
Bowser, 51, an education technology consultant and a school board member at the Pleasanton Unified School District, said the extra money in the agency's bank account should be spent on students and school districts.
"It disturbs me that (the existence of the surplus) is not transparent and is not communicated widely and consistently," Bowser said during a candidate forum sponsored by the Oakland Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee. "The money needs to be spent on students and the school districts we serve. And the first thing I would do is conduct a survey of all the school districts boards and superintendents" to see where the money needs to be spent.
At the same forum, Bowser said the office needs to increase the level of services to students in the juvenile justice system and those having trouble.
"We need to be able to provide for our most vulnerable students, the incarcerated and the pregnant teens," Bowser said. "The girls in juvenile hall, we need to give them connections, put them together with someone who can make a difference in their lives."
Foster, a member of the San Lorenzo Unified School District board and director of Human Resources at Hayward Unified School District, said she would look at lifting up the employees of the office.
"There was a lot of damage to our human capital since all these cuts in education took place starting in 2007," Foster said. "I know that some employees are simply working for the benefits. How can we sustain our students if the employees can't sustain themselves? I'm not saying I would spend all the money in that area, but let's heal those wounds and go from there."
Foster said she would also try to negotiate a health insurance plan for all the teachers in the county so health care is more affordable. She also would improve the level of teacher training services to school districts in Alameda County.
"I worked in San Jose Unified in Human Resources for several years and had a chance to work in the Santa Clara County Office of Education, and the trainings they put on are so much better than what they do in Alameda County," Foster said. "There is so much opportunity for improvement."
Monroe, 53, the current associate superintendent in the county Office of Education, said she would "do more of what we currently are doing with that money," which is giving raises to employees and bettering their health care options.
In addition, her priorities as superintendent would be to improve professional development opportunities for teachers, expand career and technical education pathways for students and support the school districts with expert information when they need it.
"The law says we have to provide technical assistance to school districts, and it's much more explicit now," Monroe said. "Districts want particular resources and supports around services they are having trouble providing, so we are building on that."
Eason, 45, who is executive director for Building Educated Leaders for Life, said she would investigate why the department has such a large budget balance before she made any spending decisions.
"The reserves are good, and that speaks to the financial health of the institution," Eason said. "I would try to figure out what is a large surplus as opposed to what is excessive."
Eason said she started high school in Oakland but was kicked out as a sophomore and ended up graduating from Berkeley High School. She then went on to get bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.
"So I come before you as an unlikely educator," Eason said at the neighborhood watch candidate forum. "I understand what it is to be kicked out of school for a series of events."
Given that history, Eason said she would like to focus on getting students in juvenile hall access to the new Common Core teaching and learning system and to "put more time in around first-time offenders so they don't become repeat offenders. And girls are entering juvenile hall at an alarming rate. We don't want them to use juvenile hall as a revolving door as some of our black and brown boys have done."
Reed, 50, a San Leandro councilwoman and a special education coordinator in the Oakland school district, said she would give employees of the office a raise and look at improving the schools the office owns, those that educate students who are either in the juvenile justice system or have been kicked out of regular public schools.
"The buildings for alternative programs are falling to pieces," Reed said. "The materials are old and in the worst condition. If we are going to be the example for the county, we need to have our facilities in order. Otherwise we are not going to succeed."
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.