New legal chief eager to continue OCDE’s vision of supporting public schools

Following a comprehensive nationwide search, the Orange County Department of Education has hired Jeffrey Riel as its next general counsel.

Riel, who brings nearly 20 years of educational law experience, has served as district counsel for the Anaheim Union High School District since 2004. He will succeed Ron Wenkart, who retired from OCDE this summer after more than 35 years of exemplary service.

“I’m very excited to work for an agency with a strong vision for supporting and empowering students, staff, parents and the community across Orange County,” Riel said. “This vision is shared by our superintendent and our Board, who expect that all work is done with respect, integrity and professional ethics.”

With a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from California State University, Long Beach, Riel earned his juris doctor degree from the University of California, Davis and passed the California bar exam in 1997.

Riel said he didn’t always have a plan to study law. While in college and graduate school he studied psychology, with a goal of working in a field helping at-risk youth. He went on to serve as an at-risk youth counselor for six years before concluding that a law degree could further help him realize his goal.

attorney sitting at desk

Early in his law career, he worked on special education issues. He represented educational entities on behalf of the law firm Parker & Covert before becoming a mediator with the McGeorge School of Law’s Special Education Hearing Office in 2002.

In 2004, Riel joined the Anaheim Union district, providing guidance and support for special education. He was later promoted to district counsel and has since advised on an array of education-related matters.

Riel’s selection as OCDE’s legal chief followed an extensive screening process, along with interviews and input from various Orange County Superintendents, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares and the Executive Committee of the Orange County Board of Education, which included OC School Board member Jack Bedell.

“I was more than happy to be a part of the process for selection of general counsel,” Bedell said.

“I was very impressed with our interview, especially the background of experience Jeff brings to help him deal with issues the county counsel focuses on,” Bedell said. “In addition, his unique experience working with at-risk youth enhances his perception on OCDE’s vulnerable student population.”

Riel grew up in Huntington Beach, and has been a resident of Orange County for almost all of his life.

When not acting as OCDE’s legal chief, Riel said he will continue to keep busy helping his wife of 15 years raise their two children, ages 12 and 14. He spends much of his free time supporting his children’s school and sporting activities, reading, hiking and traveling with the family. Their favorite vacation destination so far — Maui.

Riel said his first priority at his new position will be to “continue the great work his predecessor and his office have done to serve OCDE’s constituents.”

Riel actually started at OCDE in early July so he could work alongside Wenkart for a few weeks before Wenkart retired. Riel said he wanted to absorb as much knowledge as possible from Wenkart, who has earned a reputation as one of the top legal minds in public education statewide. Earlier this year, Wenkart received the Orange County School Boards Association’s Maureen DiMarco Award for his exemplary and far-reaching leadership in service of Orange County’s youth.

Wenkart said Riel has quickly won over staff in the agency’s legal department because of the work ethic, dedication and humility he brings to his new job. Wenkart said he is truly confident that his replacement has all the necessary work experience, skills and qualities needed to lead OCDE’s legal team going forward. Riel has shown to be a consummate professional in his work serving all students, parents and the school community as a whole, he added.

As the new general counsel, Riel will oversee the department’s Legal Services division, which advises local school districts, community college districts, the Orange County Superintendent and the Orange County Board of Education on numerous matters pertaining to education law.

OC School Board member Beckie Gomez added that she too welcomes Riel to the Legal Department.

“Mr. Riel has demonstrated fairness and professionalism in his previous dealings with the department,” Gomez said. “OCDE is very fortunate to have his extensive legal expertise to support the agency and its mission to advocate for students in preparation for college and career success.”