Calling the issue “moot,” a judge on Friday threw out a lawsuit brought by the Orange County Board of Education against county and state school officials over the Orange County Department of Education’s 2019 budget.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Martha K. Gooding ruled in favor of the defendants in the suit — Orange County Department of Education Superintendent Al Mijares and California School Superintendent Tony Thurmond — saying the 2019 budget has been settled.
The board’s decision to file the lawsuit — one of several filed in recent years by the politically outspoken board — has been criticized by some as a waste of taxpayer money.
“This is a win for (Mijares) for sure,” said Ed Connor, an attorney for Mijares and the department.
“The other winner is the public. They don’t have to keep paying for (attorneys.),” Connor added. “From our perspective, we wanted to make sure public dollars wouldn’t continue to be wasted on something that had no purpose. And the court agreed.”
Board President Mari Barke said late Friday that she was disappointed by the ruling. She could not say whether the board will appeal.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2019, months after some board members attempted to make last-minute trims to the 2019-2020 budget for the Orange County Department of Education.
The board’s then president, Ken Williams, said he and others on the board were “simply cutting the fat” by reducing money spent on lobbying, conferences and travel budgets. He said some of that money was used to lobby against charter schools, which the board majority pushes. Mijares said the board’s “12th-hour budget intervention” had nothing to do with saving money but a lot to do with wresting control from his office to advance a conservative ideology.
Facing a filing deadline, Mijares sent his version of the budget to the state’s California Department of Education without the board’s required signature. The board followed by sending its preferred version of the budget to Sacramento. With the county school district’s annual spending plan months late – a move the state called “legally and factually without precedent” – Thurmond convened a committee to oversee and finalize the budget.
But the board didn’t wait for that committee’s decision. Instead, on Nov. 18, 2019, it filed suit against Mijares and Thurmond.
In granting Mijares’ motion for judgment, Gooding wrote the issue is now moot because the 2019-20 budget was settled. An attorney for the board argued that a ruling should be rendered because there could be future budget disputes. The board also argued that the petition was not limited to one year.
But Judge Gooding said the petition’s wording did not extend beyond the 2019-20 budget and that two subsequent annual budgets have been approved by the board without controversy.
“While it is at least theoretically possible the County Superintendent and the (Board of Education) could disagree about budgetary matters in the future, the facts and contours of those disputes are unknown until they actually happen,” Gooding wrote.
The lawsuit gained attention across the state because a ruling on who has ultimate say over county school budgets — the school board or the superintendent — could have implications for 57 other county departments of education.
Connor, Mijares’ attorney, said the ruling did not set a precedent on who has the ultimate budget power, noting “the decision was not on the merit of those issues.” Instead, he said, the decision focused on the idea that the board’s arguments were now moot because the budget had long passed.
The conservative board majority also filed a lawsuit against Mijares over whether board members can hire their own attorney. That suit was settled after costing taxpayers about $3.2 million. It’s unclear how much this 2019 lawsuit has cost in legal fees.
Meanwhile, another OCBE lawsuit — approved by Trustees Barke, Williams, Lisa Sparks and Tim Shaw — is still pending. That suit is against Gov. Gavin Newsom over mask mandates.
Barke, Sparks and Shaw are running for re-election June 7. Their support for the various lawsuits has become a top issue in their races.
Staff writer Sean Emery contributed to this report.