The Daily Breeze newspaper of Torrance, Calif., won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting on Monday for a series of stories about corruption and excessive spending in a small, financially strapped school district.
Reporters Rob Kuznia and Rebecca Kimitch and project editor Frank Suraci of the newspaper won the prize, administered by Columbia University’s school of journalism and decided by a jury of journalists, for stories about the 6,700-student Centinela Valley Union School District and its former superinendent, Jose Fernandez.
Fernandez received annual total compensation of more than $600,000 per year, more than double the compensation of the head of the Los Angeles school system, the paper found by unmasking the opaque language of the superintendent’s contract.
The contract contained unusual perks such as an option to take out a low-interest loan to purchase a home, a shorter work year than most district leaders, and a stipulation that he could only be fired by four out of five members of the district’s board, the paper reported.
The series also reported that under Fernandez’s tenure, a construction firm bankrolled the board campaigns of several members and later received lucrative contracts.
Another story described a “reign of terror” in which teachers, administrators, and other Centinela Valley employees who fell out of favor with the superintendent were forced out of their jobs or “made miserable.”
Fernandez was fired, and investigations are continuing into the paper’s findings.
The Pulitzer Prize citation notes “an impressive use of the paper’s website” for the story.
In his nomination letter, Daily Breeze Executive Editor Michael A. Anastasi said the digital presentation “featured public documents we gathered, an interactive timeline that leveraged our archives to show the superintendent’s machinations through the years, and live coverage of school board meetings with video capturing community outrage.”
“This is an achievement that our organization has never before won. It’s the highest award in journalism,” Anastasi says in a video made Monday in a newsroom, though evidently one belonging to another paper in the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, whose other publications include the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
“I’m going to head over to Torrance,” Anastasi says in the video.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.