In a move both dramatic and unexpected, a Compton school board member rose from his sickbed Tuesday to break a bitter deadlock that had effectively paralyzed his district and put it in a legal quagmire.
"I'm here against the advice of my wife and my doctors," said Manuel Correa, 59, who suffered a massive heart attack on June 8 resulting in quadruple bypass surgery and had been convalescing at home. "But I came because I cannot let education for our kids in Compton grind to a halt."
His pronouncement, delivered in a feeble voice, drew wild cheers from many of the nearly 30 onlookers gathered at school district headquarters for the special meeting of the Compton board of trustees.
At issue was the Compton Unified School District's failure to pass a tentative budget for the upcoming year by the July 1 deadline required by state law. Bob Grossman, public information officer for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said he and other county school officials could not recall another school district in the county ever missing the deadline.
As a result of failing to pass the tentative budget by Monday, the county Office of Education had told board members that as of that day no new district expenses, including those incurred to pay some 138 teachers and 400 other employees serving 4,100 students enrolled in summer school, would be honored.
District Supt. Ted Kimbrough had met with union representatives Monday to warn of the impending cessation of payroll checks. And board president Kelvin Filer had called the emergency Tuesday night meeting to reconsider the tentative budget that the board had failed to approve the week before.
Failed to Attend
But the three board members who had voted against the budget June 25 failed to attend the special meeting at which it was to be reconsidered.
"I have not received any material indicating that there will be any substantial changes in the (proposed) budget," board member John Steward said in an interview earlier in the day. "Therefore I feel no need to be at the meeting."
At the previous meeting, Steward had joined board members Sam Littleton and Bernice Woods in voting against the tentative budget proposed by the superintendent. With Correa absent because of his heart condition, the result had been a 3-3 deadlock.
Steward said he opposed the $94-million budget--which wipes out a $7-million deficit in part by eliminating 41 security and other non-instructional positions--because it cuts from the "bottom" rather than "beginning at the top starting with the superintendent's expense account and everyone's conference budget."
'Verge of Bankruptcy'
"We can't continue to operate cutting $5 million to $7 million from the budget annually," Steward said. "We were a financially sound district three years ago and now we're on the verge of bankruptcy. There is obviously something wrong and my solution is to have the administration correct it. I will not bankrupt this district or watch it go bankrupt."
It was not clear before the Tuesday meeting whether a solution to the impasse would be found. The board needs a quorum of four members to conduct business, but by 6 p.m., when the special meeting was to begin, only three members had appeared. Filer took a perfunctory roll call and announced that he would wait a few moments longer.
At 6:10, Correa, walking weakly and holding the arm of his wife, Mary, entered the room and took his place at the meeting table to the delighted cheers of the audience.
The board took seven minutes to unanimously approve the tentative budget and adjourn. Aside from Correa's statement and a brief comment by Filer, there was no discussion.
"I think the gods have smiled on us," Kimbrough said afterward.
The superintendent said he had not expected to see Correa at the meeting. "He is a tremendously brave man," the superintendent said. "This tells you of the dedication and courage of a school board member."
The superintendent wasn't the only one pleased with the evening's outcome.
"I think it's beautiful," said Gladys Russell, a longtime city resident who said she had 14 grandchildren in the Compton Unified School District. "We've been praying for this. It's for the children."