Bonfire of the Valley


It finally rained in Los Angeles, which is a very good thing. This rain is a welcome bit of relief to the ongoing drought, which has the snow pack at 22 percent of normal.

Bureaucrats are deciding how many fish will die, at least 500,000 acres of cropland will be left idle, and at least one small town is projected to run out of water entirely this year, but in the LA area, we face no water restrictions, most of the comments about rain have to do with the troubles it causes for traffic, and I still see people washing the sidewalks off with hoses.

So the Central Valley is going up in dust.

Meanwhile, in a little valley closer to home, Centinela Valley Union School District Superintendent Jose Fernandez was paid $663,000 last year while school board members pleaded ignorance, saying “we would not knowingly give that high a salary.”

In 2010, after declaring personal bankruptcy and losing his home, he obtained, from the school district not a bank, a $910,000 loan at 2% interest for 40 years . He justified the loan by saying “This is something that exists in the world of senior managers.”

We live on one planet, but it seems we inhabit distinct, separate worlds. There is the world of Los Angeles, where we drive everywhere and wash our sidewalks to keep up appearances. And there is the world of the Central Valley, where we get our food, farm laborers are struggling without work, and farmers hate environmentalists because they are trying to protect fish.

There is the world of senior managers, where Fernandez’s personal bankruptcy resulted in a ludicrously generous bailout loan, a new house in Ladera Heights, and an obscene contract. And there is the world of poor students, where the materials budget was cut by $700,000 in the same year that loan was made, resulting in things like teachers not having enough paper to make copies.

It all reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, when Sherman McCoy,  a model of the 1980s era of greed who calls himself a “Master of the Universe,” ponders the necessity of taking a taxi rather than the subway to Wall Street. “Insulation. That was the ticket….If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate.  Meaning insulate yourself from those people.”

For his part, Superintendent Fernandez appears to be in denial about his insulation when he says, “We did not abuse anything....We could have gotten a home in Laguna Beach or Brentwood. We picked a place [Ladera Heights, median income: $103,00] very close to the district, composed of people similar to people we serve in the district [Centinela Valley, median income: $33,000 – %49,000].”

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked. Perhaps we don’t live in one world, but in a kaleidoscope of gated communities, where the only four-letter word that arouses righteous anger is “tax,” where voter participation slips into the single digits in local elections, where parents drive their children two blocks to school, and where my lawn has priority over your avocado grove, though I will later complain about the high cost of avocados. In such a mishmash of worlds, a school leader grabbing for half a million bucks and a school board unaware of what they have paid their top employee is perhaps not surprising at all, only inevitable. If we’re going to do anything about it, we may have to tear down some of the insulation we have built up around our own worlds.


2 thoughts on “Bonfire of the Valley

  1. Kevin, your posts on Centinela Valley are terrific. Thank you for shining a harsh light on this case. Despicable.

  2. Things get worse and worse for the community that Centinela Valley HSD is supposed to serve: The Daily Breeze reports that CVHSD doesn’t just its superintendent more than anyone else – it pays all of its senior administrators more. It spends more than 4 times as much as Redondo Beach does on legal fees. Furthermore, it pays the school board members over $1,000 (legal amount: $240 – though LACOE recently directed it cease and desist these overpayments). Fernandez is now on “paid administrative leave,” but what about the board members who claimed ignorance of this financial mismanagement? When do we, the people, stop just complaining in outrage, and actually act to rid the district of elected officials who do not serve the public interest?

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