Grand Jury Study Finds Schools in Compton Troubled but Recovering

Times Staff Writer

Although the Compton Unified School District continues to face critical social and financial problems, a two-month study by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury has concluded that the long-troubled system is on the road to recovery.

The grand jury recommended that school maintenance workers be better paid and that administrators do a better job of communicating with teachers and the community they serve.

In general, however, the study supported what many officials have contended for some time--that the 38-school system suffers mostly from a "pattern of neglect" wrought by previous administrations and an ongoing assault by the region's more than 40 "youth gangs."

$1.3 Million in Arson

"These gangs perpetrate the majority of vandalism and are believed to be responsible for over $1.3 million in arson property damage for 1984-85," the panel said in a 73-page report.

To combat the attack, the grand jury recommended that the school district's security force be made up of "certified peace officers" trained in the use of weapons and empowered to make arrests.

District Supt. Ted Kimbrough, who also advocates employing sworn officers, said he welcomed the grand jury's investigation and praised its report as "fair" and "credible." Although grand jury recommendations are non-binding, Kimbrough said several of them would be carried out in time for the start of fall classes.

"At first, I dreaded the (grand jury's) interference," Kimbrough explained, "but on second thought, it was an opportune time to address and put to rest some of the allegations which have swirled around my two-year tenure" as the district's chief executive.

Mismanagement Charged

The grand jury report focused on a series of accusations leveled by the district's teachers union in May, at the height of contract negotiations. Union officials wrote county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and several other political figures to charge that Kimbrough and the school trustees were mismanaging the system. Hahn passed the letter on to the grand jury. The grand jury hired the national consulting firm of Deloitte Haskins & Sells to assist in performing the study.

The teachers union had complained that facilities were crumbling from decay and that employees were desperately demoralized by low pay and increasing crime on the campuses. Union officials charged in their letters that "teachers are being raped in their classrooms in broad daylight" and that "the use and sale of drugs is common on many campuses."

All of those factors, union officials contended, were combining "to diminish the quality of life for the children affected" and "contribute to many of the other problems which exist in this area."

The consulting firm and selected grand jurors questioned more than 26 school administrators, teachers, union leaders, law enforcement officials and elected trustees before the grand jury concluded that many of the union's complaints were either misguided or somewhat exaggerated.

The grand jury confirmed that many Compton school buildings--which have an average age of 40 years--are in serious disrepair, but it put most of the blame at the feet of past officials and not Kimbrough.

'Stopgap' Maintenance

"During the past 15 years, physical maintenance has consisted primarily of stopgap measures to repair damage rather than capital outlays to restore the buildings and sustain their useful lives," the panel said.

Last year, Kimbrough's administration budgeted more than $4.4 million for maintenance, but was able to spend only about $2.4 million because of an unexpected decline in state funding. That was still twice what his predecessor, Aaron Wade, had annually set aside, the grand jury said.

The financial picture is not expected to improve very soon. Although officials have a five-year plan for maintenance expenses, "even if the district was able to meet this schedule as planned," the grand jury concluded, "it is likely that emergency situations would still occur given the serious and dilapidated state of the districts' buildings."

The crime problems, while also real, the grand jury said, seemed not quite as sweeping as the teachers believe.

For example, "only one instance has actually been reported" of a teacher being raped, the grand jury said. (That attack occurred early this year.) "In spite of this one unfortunate incident, teachers and plant workers indicated they generally felt safe within the environment of the schools by following reasonable precautions."

The panel reported finding little reason to be critical of Kimbrough's administration, saying that it "has made positive contributions toward correcting the problems it inherited."

Charges Not Validated

"I think it's important that the . . . basic charges that were made were not validated," Kimbrough said, "and that the grand jury's investigating team found that the school district was moving ahead and doing what it's supposed to be doing. We've taken action to correct many of the things that have been alleged."

Georgia G. Maryland, a co-author of the teachers' letter as executive director of the Compton Education Assn., found the grand jury's report disappointing.

"I don't think they accomplished very much," Maryland said. "I think they looked at our accusations and naturally the school district had an answer for each one.

"It's just another document as I see it, and it's business as usual. They can make some recommendations but there's no enforcement behind them."

Maryland conceded that teacher morale has improved since last spring's contract negotiations resulted in a roughly 9% pay increase. But she said she continues to question the commitment of administrators. She said school officials recently notified her, for instance, that they will be unable to comply with an agreement made last year to install two-way communication systems in every school no later than this fall.

Trustee John Steward also was critical of the grand jury's investigation. "They could have saved the money," Steward said this week. "The report was without substance."

Steward said he especially considered it "very inappropriate" when the grand jury's audit committee chairman wrote a two-page letter to trustees, underscoring the panel's belief that certified peace officers were needed even though their training might be more costly. Steward said he viewed it as an improper attempt "to influence the board."

And even though the grand jury's findings were only mildly critical, Steward contended, "Any time any agency is asked to review or peruse the activities of a public agency, it reflects adversely upon the district. We're not in the business of seeking investigations, we're in the business of educating children."

Kelvin Filer, president of the school trustees, said that the "positive thing" about the grand jury inquiry was that "there were no secrets. We were aware of the problems. . . . It wasn't as bad as it was initially perceived."

Filer said the report proved that the school district is "headed in the right direction,"

With 28,000 students and 3,000 employees spread among its schools, the Compton district is the third largest in Southern California. The grand jury noted that in the 15 years since the district was formed, combining what had been three smaller school systems, the city itself has undergone "dramatic shifts" in ethnic composition. Also, its largely black and Latino population has swung from one of primarily homeowners to now one of mostly renters.

In the same period, the school district's administrative leadership changed 11 times. "As these changes occurred, numerous allegations of administrative mismanagement, fraud and nepotism began to arise," the grand jury said.

Kimbrough was hired as superintendent in 1982 and promptly reassigned 40 top administrators. "These actions heightened the level of political controversy already prevalent in the district," the grand jury said.

But after examining the complaints against Kimbrough, the jury reported, "We find no substance to the allegations that the current administration is inattentive to the need for renovation of district facilities and has continued the pattern of neglect set by prior administrations."

However, the grand jury recommended that the district install an automated system for keeping better track of maintenance costs. It also proposed that a "district newsletter" be published for all employees, to provide more accurate information about how the school system is dealing with its problems.

The district's image should also be brushed up, the grand jury said, through better public communication--trustees should open their meetings to more community participation--and speedier maintenance of dilapidated facilities.

"The long-term presence (three to seven months) of burned buildings on campuses, such as Compton Senior High, projects a negative image of the school district to all students, teachers, parents and community residents who come into daily contact with the property," the jury said.

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