Sheila Jordan was about to be fired. It was 1997 and Jordan's boss believed she was mismanaging a program for pregnant teens in East Oakland. Augie Scornaienchi, Alameda County's superintendent of schools, called her in for a meeting. But Jordan is nothing if not tough. Once Scornaienchi told her he was terminating her contract, she told him that she planned to run for his job.
Jordan had landed the teen-pregnancy position less than a year earlier allegedly with the help of her mentor. Scornaienchi said Don Perata, who had just won a seat in the state Assembly, had called and asked him to hire Jordan even promising to locate the public funds to pay for her job. The then-superintendent said he reluctantly agreed.
So when Jordan told Scornaienchi that she planned to become the next superintendent, he told her that she wasn't competent to run the Alameda County Office of Education. The office not only educates some of the East Bay's poorest and neediest students through programs like the one Jordan was running, it oversees the budgets of every school district in the county.
There was no denying that Jordan lacked the most relevant qualifications; she had never been a principal and didn't possess the administrative credentials required by state law. Her experience did include teaching special education in Contra Costa County, and then serving four years on the Oakland school board, and four more on the Oakland City Council. But Scornaienchi said Jordan didn't share his concern that she was unqualified. "I know how to win elections," he recalled her saying.
Jordan rejects Scornaienchi's entire account of how she obtained and managed the teen-pregnancy job. During a recent one-hour interview at her Hayward office, she called it "a complete fabrication" and said that Scornaienchi is still bitter that she decided to oppose his handpicked successor, Cheryl Hightower.
What's beyond dispute is that Jordan is a tenacious politician who does indeed know how to win elections, schmooze with voters, and put together an impressive list of endorsements. With the help of Perata's stable of campaign contributors, she bested Hightower by 2.5 percentage points in the November 1998 election.
Once Jordan took office, she managed to escape scrutiny. The County Office of Education operates in relative obscurity. Bay Area newspapers, including this one, are largely to blame for this, given their spotty track record of covering the agency. This is unfortunate, because the office and its leader hold one of the most important responsibilities in local government making sure that scarce public education funding is spent properly and responsibly.
After almost eight years in office, Jordan's record suggests that Scornaienchi was wise to question whether she possessed the skills to serve as county schools superintendent. Under her stewardship, one-third of Alameda County's eighteen school districts have encountered serious financial troubles that required county or state intervention. Of the seven school bankruptcies in California since 1990, two occurred on Jordan's watch in Emeryville and Oakland. No other superintendent or county has weathered more than one such crisis. On this score, Jordan's record is worse than that of any other county superintendent in the state.
Under state law, county superintendents are the last line of defense to prevent such catastrophes. Yet each time financial trouble surfaced in Alameda County, Jordan refused to accept responsibility. However, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, a group of residents appointed each year to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at public agencies, has often repeatedly blamed her for failing to anticipate and not doing enough to prevent these looming crises.
In fact, there have been so many financial problems during Jordan's two terms in office that in each of the past five years the grand jury has launched full or partial investigations into her office and issued reports criticizing her. It has described her approach as being both insufficient and late. The panel also has praised Jordan for decisive actions once financial problems fully emerge, but repeatedly scolded her often sharply for failing to anticipate the disasters in the first place.
Two former county employees said recently that they have been interviewed by the current county grand jury, which is once again investigating Jordan's office. Yet as the June 6 election approaches, the 61-year-old appears headed for her third term as county superintendent. She has gathered another long list of endorsements and has many prominent friends, most notably Perata, who is president of the state Senate. Even her political enemies acknowledge that she is a formidable campaigner. She can be alternately charming and hard-nosed, and like many successful politicians, she knows how to work a room full of deep-pocket donors.
But interviews with more than a dozen ex-employees, fellow educators, and former friends, and a review of hundreds of pages of public documents, reveal a darker picture of Jordan a public servant whose office has botched its major responsibility while she at times seems preoccupied with politics or exacting revenge against employees who dared to question her judgment or her alleged illegal behavior.
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