Love of Learning Made Him Schools' Booster

Times Staff Writer

Years ago, education was Joe Duardo's ticket out of poverty in East Los Angeles, where he was born into a family of six. Now, as president-elect of the 6,000-member California School Board Assn., Duardo, 53, is becoming one of education's more powerful voices in the state.

"It's an almost humbling feeling," said Duardo, reflecting on his rise from the barrio to a career as a scientist and high-tech engineer and, eventually, a leader in state education.

"School gave me a chance in life, and I've always wanted to give something back to it."

Duardo, a longtime Whittier resident, has been doing just that for more than a decade as a trustee in the South Whittier School District and as a top official in the state school board association, which represents 1,043 school districts.

Duardo's commitment stems from a simple belief that young people can get ahead only the old-fashioned way--they must learn it.

"The future begins in the classroom," Duardo said. "Give a kid a good education and he's got the tools to do anything."

It's up to school boards to deliver that "good education," he said. But that responsibility has grown increasingly difficult for local boards, particularly in an era when public schools have had to scramble for money.

When property-tax-cutting Proposition 13 took effect in 1978, public agencies, including schools, had to live with less money from the state. And often schools didn't know how much they'd get for the next year until mid-summer, only weeks before fall classes resumed. The fiscal uncertainty created a yearly crisis in many districts, one Duardo wants to end, once and for all.

Need Long-Range Funding

"What schools in this state need more than anything is a long-range funding formula," he said. "We can't ask schools to properly educate our students when every year they are forced to play a shell game, trying to guess how much--if any--new money the Legislature will deliver. A new funding formula will be one of my top priorities (as association president)."

As president-elect, Duardo automatically becomes the school board association's top elected official in December, 1985, when the term of the current president, Kay Albiani of Elk Grove, ends. Duardo, who was vice president last year, was voted president-elect in November by the organization's 200-member governing body.

When he becomes president, Duardo will shuttle regularly between Los Angeles and the association's Sacramento headquarters as well as travel the state on its behalf. To cope with the demanding schedule, Duardo said he will seek a one-year leave of absence from his job as manager of a high-tech engineering group at Xerox Corp.'s Monrovia plant.

It will be Duardo's second paid leave from Xerox. The first was in 1972, when he went to work at Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles as part of the firm's Social Services Leave Program, which allows employees to pursue special interests outside work. Duardo served as a special assistant to the Lincoln High principal.

"Primarily, I was a free-lance counselor of sorts," recalled Duardo, who is married and has four grown children. "I spent hours with students, individually and in groups, talking about their problems, concerns and goals. As I worked at Lincoln that year, my concern for education grew."

Master's Degree From Caltech

Two years later, Duardo, who graduated from East Los Angeles College and UCLA and later earned a master's degree in physical chemistry from Caltech, won the first of four terms on the South Whittier school board. He currently is board president for the fourth time.

Duardo is confident better days are ahead for the largely Latino district of 4,000 students. For the first time in nearly two years, the school system is solvent. Board members had considering filing for bankruptcy when an audit of district books last year discovered an $800,000 debt. But a $415,000 emergency loan from the state and more than $1 million in budget cuts has solved the district's financial problems.

"This district is a lean and mean operation now," Duardo said. "We've cut and cut until we're almost bleeding. But it's been a healthy process. The board realized that it had to more closely monitor how money is spent in the district. You have to trust your staff but not blindly."

Besides school financing, Duardo believes state leaders must move quickly to prevent a teacher shortage, which the Department of Education predicts could reach 110,000 by the end of the decade when elementary school enrollments are expected to rise again. One solution is to improve salaries to attract young teachers, including those who have turned to private industry because of better pay and benefits.

Must Be Sensitive to Disadvantaged

Duardo also is worried that in the push to improve student's basic skills, the needs of disadvantaged pupils may be ignored, particularly those who are handicapped, don't speak English or have learning disabilities.

"There is this tremendous emphasis on excellence in the classroom. It's a healthy, positive trend," Duardo said. "But not all students can meet those standards. Some kids learn at a slower rate or in different ways and we must be sensitive to that."

Overall, Duardo believes California schools are beginning to flower in a period of renewed support on the local and state levels. But he cautioned against taking such strong public backing for granted.

"We hollered for years for help. Now we're starting to get it," he said. "But it's up to us to keep the ball rolling--keep districts fiscally sound and keep improving test scores. I've pledged myself to do just that."

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