2 Top Compton School Aides in Fierce Row Over Election Signs

Times Staff Writer

Years of bitter feelings between two Compton school officials boiled over in an election-day shouting match that prompted one--Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough--to swear out a criminal intimidation complaint against the other--newly reelected trustee John Steward.

The argument began Tuesday over the placement of several Steward campaign signs that had been tacked onto utility poles near the Compton Unified School District administration building at 604 S. Tamarind Ave.

But it quickly developed into more of a test of wills between two men who have had sharp differences over the administration of the school system.


Kimbrough said Steward “verbally abused and disrespected” him during the incident and hurled threats in violation of state education codes.

Steward--who 10 months ago called for Kimbrough’s resignation and has opposed him on many major issues over the past four years--doesn’t deny that harsh words were exchanged and fingers pointed. But he contends that the superintendent was trying to interfere in his effort to win reelection.

Inquiry Under Way

Officials in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, meanwhile, confirmed that they are investigating to see if any laws were violated. Trustee President Kelvin D. Filer declined to comment at length on the dispute, which he did not witness, because it is “a personnel matter” involving an appointed school employee, Kimbrough.

“I don’t think this says anything negative about the state of the schools . . . or what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s unfortunate, but I have no comment,” Filer said.

However, Georgia G. Maryland, of the Compton Education Assn., characterized the conflict as “just another episode of the same thing” that has pitted trustees against either Kimbrough or each other.

She scolded both officials for participating in such a “public display,” and said “it’s certainly not a role model” for any of the district’s 28,000 elementary through high school students.


Based on interviews with both men and a Nov. 5 memo that Kimbrough wrote recounting the incident to school board members, the confrontation began shortly after 2 p.m., as Compton voters were in the midst of sorting through a ballot of 20 candidates seeking four trustee seats, including Steward’s.

Steward said he had dropped by the administration building, which doubles as a polling place, to observe some of the voting. While there, he “jokingly talked and laughed” with some election workers who had taken down a few of his campaign signs because they were apparently less than 100 feet away and in violation of election laws.

“I told them they must have been measuring it as the crow flies,” Steward recalled. “It was a big joke.” He said he then routinely went to the trustees’ office to check his mail.

About that time, Kimbrough drove up to the building after having spent part of the day at one of the district’s 38 schools. As he headed north on Tamarind Avenue, Kimbrough wrote in his memo, he saw several other campaign posters for Steward and one for another candidate attached to utility poles “placed between the street curb and the sidewalk of the district property.” Seeing Steward’s camper truck parked in front of the building, Kimbrough said he “proceeded to approach him in the board offices.”

Kimbrough said he found Steward and asked to speak with him “on a private matter.” The two walked to the superintendent’s office and eventually to the front of the building, “where I indicted to him that it was my belief that he could not post campaign signs on school district property for election purposes.

“I requested that he take them down,” Kimbrough’s memo continued, “otherwise, as Superintendent of Schools, I would have to see to their removal.”


At that, Kimbrough said Steward shot back an obscenity in telling him not to tamper with the signs. Steward said he doesn’t recall his exact words but agreed that it was “quite likely . . . under such circumstances” that he did say what Kimbrough reported.

Kimbrough said he immediately turned to return to his office, saying that he planned to telephone county election officials to ask them if the signs were illegal.

“I went with him,” said Steward, “assuring him that he didn’t need to call because I knew what the regulations were, or what the customs were anyway.” The trustee explained that he was only trying to tell Kimbrough that “the signs were not on school district property, they were on the public parkway.”

“What I was saying to him was that’s the way we campaign (in Compton).” Posting signs on a right-of-way is a “common practice even though there’s a city ordinance against it, I’m sure.”

(Compton election officials were unavailable for comment on the point.)

“Any time people talk about removing someone’s posters,” the trustee said, “there’s a confrontation. Then we sit down and laugh about it after the election.”

But Kimbrough saw it as no laughing matter.

‘None of Your Business’

In his memo, the superintendent alleged that Steward then “followed me into my office in a loud and abusive manner and threatened me by saying: ‘You had better not touch my signs. You are not a registered voter in Compton nor a resident (Kimbrough lives in Los Angeles) and you have nothing to do with the election.’ Further, ‘It is none of your business and you should stay out of the election.’ ”


Kimbrough wrote that he responded to Steward by saying, “ ‘I am not concerned about the election, only about the legality of what is happening on school district property’ . . . “

The superintendent said Steward “then began to walk from my office and told me, ‘You had better not remove the signs whether they were legal or illegal and if you want to consider that a threat, then it is a threat. I will be back in your office tomorrow morning as a private citizen or as a board member and will take the appropriate action against you for your action.’ ”

Steward’s recollection of the exchange was similar: “When I left his office I said ‘Don’t mess with my damn signs’. And I said ‘If you do, I will deal with you as I would anyone who pulls down my signs.’ ”

Steward said the superintendent then “got out of his chair, took off his jacket and followed me out the door” as several school employees stood by in open-mouthed amazement. “ As I went out the door I said, ‘Don’t place yourself at risk by messing with my signs.’ ”

It was there that the face-off ended, with neither man striking a blow or even making an attempt.

“We weren’t that close, there was distance between us,” said Steward, who is slightly taller and heavier than Kimbrough. “But I was very aware when he came out of the office behind me that he didn’t have his jacket on.”


Kimbrough contends that he had been in his shirt sleeves throughout the confrontation, and that if anyone was concerned about the prospect of violence, it was he.

“He had already yelled at me,” Kimbrough said, “so I figured there was only one other option . . . . How dare he act like that.”

Kimbrough then telephoned the Los Angeles county counsel’s office, wrote his memo to the trustees and filed a complaint with Compton Police, who in turn referred it to the district attorney. Willful interference with a school official is a misdemeanor punishable by a jail term of up to six months and fines up to $1,000, according to state education codes.

Steward said he believes Kimbrough overstepped his authority in taking it upon himself to enforce election laws. “He was frustrated because he has worked so hard to unseat me and he was convinced that I had strategy that I employed (by way of posting the campaign signs) that was visibly effective.”

Stewart won reelection, as did each of the four incumbent trustees.

“From his perspective, (the intimidation charge) would be a way to keep me off the board,” Steward said.

Kimbrough denied doing anything to unseat Steward. “I don’t participate in politics,” he said.


“I think the question is not anything outside of the fact that as superintendent of schools, I’m sworn to uphold the laws of the Constitution and the State of California,” Kimbrough said. And when any apparent violation occurs “on school property” he said his duty is to report it, even if it means further souring a relationship with someone who shares the power to fire him.

“I really can’t be concerned about my effectiveness (as superintendent) when it is my considered opinion that I have to enforce the regulations of this state,” Kimbrough said. “I’m just not going to put myself in the position where anyone, I don’t care who it is, will threaten me where I’m carrying out the law of the State of California.”

Jokingly, Steward said, “I now wait to go to jail,” although he is confident that there “are no elements of the crime” that Kimbrough is alleging.

Even now that tempers have cooled, Kimbrough said: “I am going to press the issue. I’m not willing to back off.”

“The issue is larger than just Ted Kimbrough,” he said. “The issue is, ‘Can people threaten a public school official and break the law and not have to suffer the consequences?’ ”

However the matter is finally decided, both men said they don’t foresee any problems working together on school district matters when the trustees meet for their next regular meeting.