Meet the Biola trustee at the center of Orange County’s massive public education battle

Orange County Department of Education superintendent Al Mijares is currently in a legal standoff with his own department’s board due to disagreements over budget cuts.

Al Mijares is in a standoff with the Orange County Board of Education over proposed budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year.

Courtesy of Biola University

Al Mijares is in a standoff with the Orange County Board of Education over proposed budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year.

Austin Green, Freelance Writer

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(This story was originally published in print on Nov. 14, 2019).

Al Mijares, the superintendent of Orange County’s Department of Education and a longtime Biola trustee, is in a heated standoff with the Orange County Board of Education over proposed budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year. The deadlock has lasted over four months past the deadline to submit the department’s annual budget to the State of California. 

The state has called the deadlock “without precedent,” and is now threatening to take over the issue, after an October deadline to resolve the issue came and went, the Orange County Register reported.

President Barry Corey said the school could not comment on specifics related to Mijares’ role as Orange County superintendent. However, Corey said Mijares had been reviewed and approved within the past year to confirm his position on the board. As part of the routine review process, the university confirmed Mijares’ alignment with Biola’s theological statements, which Corey described as “core conservative, theological, biblically-grounded statements” that every member of the governing board must adhere to.

 “His recent reaffirmation assures us that he believes that he continues to be aligned to the university’s mission and theological positions, and that’s what’s important for us and for our board to have that kind of assurance that he has attested to,” Corey said.

Mijares has been a member of Biola’s Board of Trustees since 2007 and serves on its academic affairs committee. Over his decades-long career, Mijares has earned a reputation as a champion of liberal education initiatives and an opponent of charter schools and school choice activists.

BUDGET BATTLE BEGINS

The stalemate started in late June when Orange County’s Education board voted 3-2 to cut nearly $173,000 of Mijares’ proposed $257 million budget for the upcoming academic year. The cuts effectively eliminate sections of the budget designated for use by Mijares’ office for travel, conference attendance and lobbying purposes.

Orange County’s education department had until July 1 to submit its budget to the state for approval, according to the OC Register.

However, Mijares refused to sign the amended budget. The state rejected the version of the budget with the cuts submitted by the board, as well as the full budget submitted by Mijares, on the grounds that the budget needed both parties’ approval.

Since then, both Mijares and the board’s three-person conservative voting bloc that approved the cuts have hired attorneys and filed lawsuits against each other. They also took their debate to the press.

Mijares and longtime board member Ken L. Williams, who helped spearhead the cuts, wrote opposing editorials about the issue for the Register in August.

In his Aug. 6 op-ed, Williams stressed that the cuts “do not touch spending that affects the quality of education, such as teacher compensation or school funding.”

Rather, he claimed the cuts were solely in response to what he described as Mijares’ improper use of those funds. Williams said Mijares’ office spent over $150,000 to lobby for Assembly Bill 1505 during the 2018-19 school year. This went against the board’s wishes, Williams said.

The bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Aug. 28, drastically increases state oversight over charter schools and was fervently opposed by charter school advocates. Four of the five members of the OC Board of Education have come out in support of charter schools, including the conservative bloc of Williams, Lisa Sparks and current board president Mari Barke. 

MIJARES: CONSERVATIVE PROMOTES HATE SPEECH

Mijares fired back at Williams in an Aug. 12 op-ed, claiming that the school board had no legal authority to alter his proposed budget. While Mijares admitted that the money in question comprised less than 1% of the overall budget, he accused Williams of using his seat on the board to “wage inflammatory and divisive culture wars.”

“[Williams] has stoked fears over state-mandated instructional standards, tried to mislead the public on health education policies, spent taxpayer dollars on excessive and redundant legal services and cultivated an environment where abhorrent rhetoric can be directed toward the LGBTQ community with no consequences, even at meetings where children are present,” Mijares wrote.

Both sides claim that the issue could set a legal precedent for all of California’s county education departments. Mijares says that Williams’ actions could politicize and destabilize those departments. Williams claims that voters should hold locally elected officials accountable for how their departments spend taxpayer money.

Mijares was appointed to his position in 2012 and ran unopposed for re-election in 2014 and 2018. He previously served as the superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District and as the vice president of the western regional office of the College Board.