County Inquiry Asked in School District Feud Over Superintendent

Times Staff Writer

Officials of the South Bay Union High School District, who had publicly predicted a new era of tranquility after concluding the controversial $14.5-million sale of their Aviation High School campus recently, are instead immersed in concurrent investigations of Supt. Hugh Cameron and school board member Armando Acosta.

At a heated, standing-room-only session Wednesday, the board requested that the county counsel's office study Cameron's role in the sale of Aviation and whether Acosta attempted to influence the district's hiring of a bank to invest the lucrative Aviation proceeds.

The actions came on the heels of an unsuccessful attempt by Acosta at a March 6 meeting to force Cameron's resignation. First-term trustee Acosta, labeling Cameron "an expert wheeler-dealer" with deficiencies as an educational leader, complained at that meeting of the board's failure to implement a procedure to evaluate Cameron's job performance.

Raging Controversy

Acosta's criticisms--which included Cameron's personnel and salary-setting recommendations and a proposal to sell the east end of the Redondo Union High School campus--have resulted in a firestorm of controversy.

The board on Wednesday directed Cameron to drop his study of the possible Redondo Union land sale. Board members--who had voted 3 to 2 to retain Cameron on March 6--also agreed to choose a method next month for evaluating Cameron's job performance before deciding on his annual raise.

A majority of board members have reacted to Acosta's charges by voicing solid support for the five-year superintendent and criticizing Acosta. Member Noel Palm issued his own five-page response to the four-page statement of concerns that Acosta presented March 6, and Cameron issued a detailed rebuttal to Acosta's 12-point memo.

"The method (Acosta) used to communicate his concerns to the public without speaking to his fellow board members and without talking to the superintendent about his concerns will divide this community as no other single event in the past has," Cameron wrote.

Hope for Peace

That contrasts with Cameron's brighter prediction earlier this month in a message to district parents. It read: "The 'war' is over (at Aviation). . . . We now can once again be a truly cooperative district."

After a brief executive (closed) session Wednesday, Palm and fellow board member William Beverly said they were particularly concerned about Acosta's questions about the sale of Aviation.

Last summer, Jim Miller, president of Alpha Omega Development--whose bid was rejected in favor of Overton, Moore & Associates--had complained bitterly about the selection process, called the board's unanimous decision, "a stinking back-room deal."

At the time, Palm termed said Miller was "way out of line" and brushed aside the developer's request that an independent committee of prominent citizens study the role played by the district's broker, the Goodglick Co.

Acosta, in his memo, says that since that time, "several (other) developers who telephoned me stressed that they didn't wish to go public and cause headlines, but that they were concerned their positions were not being fairly represented by our broker (the Goodglick Co.), but particularly (by) our superintendent."

Evidence Asked

Palm and Beverly retorted Wednesday that Acosta's statement raised the specter of misconduct and that any evidence he has should be shared with the rest of the board.

Acosta, answering the queries of fellow board members, said, "I don't think (broker) Bill Goodglick or Hugh (Cameron) did anything illegal." He later added, "You don't know who to believe."

Cameron said that he never spoke to Miller or other developers about their bids, instead referring them to broker William Goodglick's firm. "I have been scrupulously honest," Cameron said in his memo.

The board, at the behest of Palm and Beverly, directed attorney Audrey Oliver of the county counsel's office to look into Acosta's contentions.

Beverly then asked for a similar investigation of Acosta. He said he had received information from an undisclosed source that Acosta--who works as an executive in the personal banking division of the Crocker National Bank--may have been in line for compensation from Crocker if it had been awarded the contract to serve as the district's investment counselor for the Aviation sales proceeds. Earlier this month, the board awarded the contract to Union Bank. Acosta took no part in the deliberations or voting.

Possible Misunderstanding

"I have a good source," said Beverly, acknowledging moments later that his information could turn out to be "a misunderstanding (or) a quote out of context."

Beverly also said that Acosta may have sought to lobby a district employee about the contract.

Acosta retorted: "I stayed away from (the contract negotiations) with a 10-foot pole." He added that the personal banking division for which he works is separate from the investment division that sought the contract.

At most, Acosta said, he introduced his fellow employees to Cameron.

"I did not partake in any negotiations or discussions," Acosta said. "I received no (profits) and could receive no profits."

Crocker Regional Vice President Daniel Grow Jr. said in a phone conversation Thursday: "(Acosta) was really not involved in the proposal at all . . . (he) did not receive any financial reward of any type."

"I'm convinced," said Acosta, "this is Beverly's method of focusing attention away from the superintendent."

Investigation Welcomed

Cameron, who said he welcomed the investigation of the Aviation sale because "there are no improprieties; Mr. Acosta is speaking through his ear," added that he also saw no impropriety in Acosta calling him to let him know that Crocker representatives would be visiting the district office.

At the Wednesday session, Cameron's educational leadership skills were staunchly defended by the district's managers' association, which conducted its own evaluation of his performance.

In a statement read by Mira Costa High School Principal William Wilcox, the administrators cited Cameron's role in increasing graduation requirements and refusing to lay off teachers or shorten the school day. His commitment to education and its improvement, they said, is "strong and ongoing."

Ironically, Cameron received a lower mark in educational leadership than in most other categories on a 1984 administrators' evaluation of his performance that Cameron released publicly Wednesday.

Improvement Needed

Although the evaluation on educational leadership cited almost as many positive areas of satisfactory performance as negative performance, administrators said improvements were needed in instruction, curriculum and morale.

At the meeting, Acosta also released a photocopy of a typed, three-line threatening memo he said he found in his home mailbox last weekend.

"If you think we're going to let you fire Hugh, you better think twice," it read. "You and (fellow board member Lyn) Flory instead should watch over your families. Who knows what could happen to them?"

Cameron later questioned the seriousness of the threat, which Acosta said he had turned over to police.

"I thought I was in a comic strip for a minute (when Acosta read the letter)," Cameron said. "I'm just astounded anything like that could happen."

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