Six months after San Diego County Office of Education superintendent Randolph Ward resigned amid allegations of fraud and mismanagement, turmoil at the office continues. The agency is responsible for financial and curriculum oversight of the 42 school districts and 5 community-college districts in San Diego County.
On February 28, former assistant superintendent of human services Michelle Fort-Merrill sued the agency for terminating her without giving a reason or an opportunity to defend her firing.
Fort-Merrill, who started working with the district in 2001, was a close confidant to former superintendent Ward. Her time as assistant superintendent, where she earned a salary of $161,000, was not without controversy.
In 2010, a former insurance-claims coordinator for the office of education, Rodger Hartnett, accused Fort-Merrill (along with several others) of playing favorites with public education money by awarding lucrative legal contracts to friends; in the case of Fort-Merrill, her husband William "Woody" Merrill's law firm Best Best & Krieger.
Hartnett claims he was fired after blowing the whistle on the high-ranking education officials. Among his claims was that the office, under Fort-Merrill's direction, failed to give him due process to fight his termination.
In 2011, a judge sided with Hartnett, ordering the agency to reimburse Hartnett $237,00 in unpaid wages. By 2014, as reported by the Reader, the agency had not yet paid Hartnett — but those same law firms he objected to were paid, using over $500,000 to fight the case.
Fort-Merrill remained at Ward's side as allegations surfaced in July 2016 that he awarded himself $100,000 in raises over a period of several years. During the initial investigation Fort-Merrill supported Ward and lobbied for him to keep his position. That effort failed and in September 2016 Edward Velasquez was named interim superintendent.
Though Velasquez had pledged to keep many of the top executives in place, two weeks after Ward's resignation, while on vacation, Fort-Merrill says she was informed that she was getting placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. According to an October letter, office of education staff were looking into charges that Fort-Merrill had created a hostile work environment.
According to Fort-Merrill's lawsuit, the investigation into her work conduct never occurred. On January 4, 2017, she says she was interviewed by interim superintendent Velasquez, who sought a better understanding of the organization’s departments. Yet, without any additional information Fort-Merrill alleges she was terminated later that month for unspecified reasons.
In her lawsuit, Fort-Merrill says Velasquez and the agency violated the education code by failing to follow due-process protocols. She is asking a judge allow her to return to work and get paid for lost wages, as well as other damages.