A taxpayer group is suing county superintendent of schools Randy Ward, claiming he illegally paid himself as much as $100,000 in recent years, and doled out improper pay to his top staffers.

The lawsuit – filed Thursday in San Diego County Superior Court by the California Taxpayers Action Network, represented by San Diego attorney Cory Briggs – takes aim at several aspects of Ward’s compensation, including so-called “me-too” raises they say violate strict state conflict-of-interest laws.

Ward has served as the top executive of the San Diego County Office of Education since June 2006, and his pay has put him among the highest compensated K-12 public school employees in the state.

In June 2013, the elected five-member board added language to Ward’s contract that let him collect the same raises teachers get as long as he earned a satisfactory performance evaluation.

In June 2014, the board did away with the evaluation requirement and gave him the same raises as teachers automatically, without consideration of his performance. As a result, that year, Ward received a 5.1 percent raise worth $14,535, and has continued to receive guaranteed raises matching teachers ever since.

Me-too clauses can be legal, but California laws generally prohibit self-dealing to ensure that government officials’ responsibility to negotiate salaries in the best interest of taxpayers isn’t compromised by a personal financial incentive.

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Since Ward negotiates with the teacher’s union and helps decide what raises teachers get, his actions could be considered self-dealing. If deemed illegal in court, at least $70,000 in payments could be voided and ordered repaid to the agency.

Another bone of contention raised in the lawsuit deals with an earlier raise granted to Ward before the “me-too” raises were put in place.

In 2008, the board gave Ward a 3.8 percent raise, but he postponed taking it. Then, two years later, he retroactively authorized it via an interoffice memorandum to the business department causing a windfall of up to $31,400.

Staff did not respond to questions asking whether the move could have spiked his pension – or improperly boosted his retirement benefits in violation of state rules. The impact on Ward’s pension is not discussed in the lawsuit.

The California Constitution generally prohibits non-union employees like Ward from getting paid long after work was performed, so the belated me-too pay bumps are also unconstitutional, the nonprofit taxpayer group says.

The lawsuit also names the County Office of Education’s longtime chief business officer, Lora Duzyk, claiming she too acted illegally and abused her office.

“Defendant Ward has no legal right to accept retroactive pay increases, and none of the Defendants has the legal authority to increase their compensation without first obtaining the BoE’s (board) approval,” the lawsuit says.

The group contends the board’s action adding me-too raises to Ward’s contract doesn’t mean the payments were legal.

A recent salary bump for Ward of 4 percent that took effect July 1 brought his base salary to $331,736 and is also being questioned by the group. Voice of San Diego also asked the County Office of Education for an explanation of the recent raise and has not yet heard back.

Ward just began the final year of a three-year superintendent employment contract that expires July 1, 2017.

Ward and Duzyk did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We don’t litigate through the press, so we won’t have any comment on this matter,” said Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the County Office of Education.

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, School Leadership

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at ashly.mcglone@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    As a teacher I was lulled into thinking that teacher trainings presented by SDCOE were of the highest value and based on "best practices". Wrong. Sleaze is everywhere. In every place across America, the realities and ugliness of life are evident. The only place I have found where purity still reigns, for now, is in the classrooms from pre-k to 12. Teachers and children always do the right thing.  Ok, so you think that elementary school teachers live in a la-la land? Well, how would you feel if Disneyland turned into Coney Island? Yeah, I'm sure, there are fond memories of childhood at either of those places. But, you and everyone who pays through the nose, expect Disneyland to be nearly perfect. I expect SDCOE to be free of fraud and a wholesome place for teachers and kids to use the internet and otherwise to learn. Otherwise, why would all taxpayers support an organization that is corrupt and self gratifying with little or no regard for genuine ethical practices. 

          SDCOE went out of its way to hurt the poverty pocket that is San Ysidro and the children who reside their. The County hired a total monster in George Cameron to fill in the post of Interim Superintendent. Granted, former superintendent Paul and former interim superintendent Madera had some major flaws. But, Cameron, Duzyk and Ward conspired to hurt the children of San Ysidro. The teachers went on strike not for any real betterment of compensation, but to obtain clear transparency in district governance.  

            It took a massive community effort to oust bad school board members and to place good lead administrators to do the right thing. 

             This writing is just a word to the wise. Bad things happen when the citizens of a community decide to non-participate.  We all know what happened in Bell, California. And, we all know what happened in the Poway School District. We all have to show up and speak. Our communities and the future of our children are at stake.  We make things better. We make our leaders....lead. But, we all need to show up. And, we need to show up when we would rather watch t.v. or play a video game.  We are all tired. We work. But, it is so satisfying if we express ourselves and see the fruits of our efforts in a better community.

    Anniej subscriber

    This story is yet one more example of the ills of GREED infiltrating our school Districts. For years school Boards across this city/county flew under the radar - we the taxpayers believing those we elected were there to serve vs use. We are now faced with the fact that WE too must take ownership - we trusted but failed to verify.

    BONDS are the next area we MUST educate ouselves about. The waste and lack of accountability of the millions of dollars of BOND monies in recent years borders on criminal. Until and unless school districts are willing to provide true fiscal accountability and integrity as it relates to BOND funds we will vote NO on ALL future BONDS. The day of reckoning is here. AND,,,,,,,, I do NOT believe PLA's are the answer, but,,,, that is simply my opinion.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @Anniej I agree that the public must stop trusting the people who control schools. We must demand transparency so we know the facts about school board candidates.

     I also agree that bonds must be watched much more carefully. The CAB bond scandal in Poway shows how willing some board members are to put their own careers ahead of the public good.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    Eventually when the numbers get big enough, people still realize that govt school districts are a cesspool of corruption. The tactics chronicled in this lawsuit are commonplace in districts across the state.

    The administration in charge of negotiating the best deal for taxpayers gets the same raise they give to teachers. It's a massive conflict of interest and is why teacher salaries and benefits are exploding for these part time jobs.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Stinks like more examples of ongoing corruption in the SD school district to me. Great reporting VOSD, those death threats from school district officials should be considered a badge of honor.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @Sean M  VOSD has been careful to avoid investigating SDCOE since it fired Emily Alpert. This story is NOT the result of a VOSD investigation. California Taxpayers Action Network deserves the credit for this investigation. But I will give credit to VOSD for at least reporting on the lawsuit.

    San Diego Unified is a separate entity from SDCOE and is not as closely connected to SDCOE as most other county districts are. It uses its own in-house lawyers, and has thus avoided big problems that SDCOE has inflicted on districts such as San Ysidro. And I think that "death threats" story was far more shameful for VOSD than it was for San Diego Unified. It just proved how hostile VOSD is to San Diego Unified.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Ward and Duzik are complicit in maximizing their positions. They are both involved in attempting to create the milieu to ruin the San Ysidro School District.  Ward supported his wife in promoting a curriculum program that was not supported by the teachers in San Ysidro. Duzyik was instrumental in attempting to provide the ways and means to create the environment for San Ysidro School District to default.  Both, were not properly vetted by the County of Education Board. A gran jury should be formed to investigate the actions of Ward, his wife, and Duzyik that improperly promoted their aims and helped to hurt the education of low income students.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @John H Borja SDCOE board and administration supports and protects schemes that benefit their pals at the expense of the public. Lora Duzyk has been there longer than Randy Ward. The fact that Ward and Duzyk have kept Diane Crosier in her position is an indicator of what their intentions are.