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Compton Schools Chief Dismissed : Education: The board’s vote to fire Supt. J.L. Handy ends a two-year tenure beset by financial problems, low test scores and a near takeover by the state.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ending a two-year tenure beset by financial problems, low test scores and a near state takeover, the Compton school board dismissed Supt. J.L. Handy on Tuesday night.

“The only way we could move forward was to make a change,” board President Kelvin Filer said. “The morale of all the employees of the district was at an all-time low.”

The board ousted Handy in a 4-3 vote less than two months after placing him on three months of probation for alleged mismanagement and dereliction of duty.

Handy, 52, will receive about $200,000 that he would have earned from serving the balance of his contract, which runs through June, 1994. He could not be reached for comment.

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Handy’s opponents have blamed him for recent budget problems as well as the near success of legislation that would have made Compton Unified the first California school district ever taken over for failing academically.

Critics labeled Handy as divisive, autocratic, unfocused in academic planning and unable to put together a sound budget.

His supporters paint a vastly different picture: that of a hard-working, thoughtful educator unable to rise above longstanding problems and internal wars.

Board member Cloria Patillo said Handy was a scapegoat for the district’s woes.

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“This district has suffered a great loss,” Patillo said. “He was a very, very dedicated educator. He wanted the best for the children of the district.”

Board member Amen Rahh, who also voted against relieving Handy, said the dismissal could expose the district to costly litigation.

He added that the buyout was more than the district could afford less than two months after laying off nurses and closing middle school libraries to save money.

“Here our people are looking for jobs and we’re paying to send him home,” Rahh said.

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The Handy era began with great expectations in August, 1990. He went to the district from Sacramento City Unified, where he had just been demoted from assistant superintendent to middle school principal. Sacramento school officials would not comment on the reason for the demotion.

Handy came south to a 28,000-student school system suffering with dispirited employees and poor student test scores. Teachers had staged sickouts and hundreds left for better salaries and working conditions in Los Angeles Unified.

As soon as he arrived, Handy supported an across-the-board wage increase to make Compton salaries more competitive.

“He inherited a district that had low wages, and he immediately changed that,” Patillo said. She added that Handy improved staff communication and morale, meeting with every department, visiting every school regularly and encouraging more parent involvement.

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“He came in with innovative ideas,” said Kalem Aquil, chair of the district’s parent advisory committee. “We got along quite well, but it didn’t translate into my children getting a better education,” Aquil added. “Between his office and my children, the ball was dropped.”

Critics partly blame Handy’s style, which they said lacked follow-through and focus. A long-awaited and long-promised parent-help center has yet to open, Aquil noted.

Numerous parents and even administrators have complained that Handy rarely returned phone calls or answered requests for information.

Handy’s style at board meetings did not enhance his popularity. He rarely said anything during a meeting, creating an appearance of aloofness. And his occasional responses--in an indirect, technical language befitting his accounting background--often left parents and community members as dissatisfied or confused as ever.

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Handy lost credibility with several board members over his handling of district business decisions and the takeover bill.

At one point Handy assured board members that the takeover bill was dead, when in fact the Legislature soon passed the bill, catching the district by surprise.

Gov. Pete Wilson finally vetoed the bill, but warned that he would reconsider similar legislation if student test scores don’t improve. The school system’s test scores typically rank at or near the bottom in the state.

Preparation of this year’s budget fell months behind schedule. Handy reassured the board that the district was one of the healthiest in the state, with a surplus of more than $4 million.

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The county twice rejected Compton’s adopted budget because of miscalculations. The supposed surplus evaporated, and the board approved $4.9 million in last-minute cuts that included dozens of layoffs.

Auditors also recently concluded that the district was responsible for about $1 million in tax penalties for filing errors. The finding came after Handy’s initial investigation prompted him to tell the board that the penalties were the result of Internal Revenue Service errors, said board member John Steward.

Meanwhile, district sources report that soon-to-be-released test scores for eighth-graders show little or no improvement, leaving Handy’s administration where it started in two respects--with low morale and low test scores.

Trustees named Harold Cebrun as acting superintendent. Cebrun, 47, had been serving as an area superintendent, the administrator who oversaw Dominguez High and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it.

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