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State Appointee Takes Over Compton Schools

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A state-appointed interim administrator has assumed control of the financially troubled Compton Unified School District, telling angry but resigned school board members they can no longer vote, use their offices or collect their $1,000-a-month stipends.

Less than a week after Gov. Pete Wilson authorized a $10.5-million emergency loan to the district, interim administrator Stan Oswalt told board members Thursday night that he will run their biweekly meetings and play the leading role in slashing $8 million from the district’s budget.

“All the decisions the administrator will make could have been made by this district,” he told the board and an audience of about 75 people. “The district failed at this point in time. That’s a harsh reality, but that’s the reality.”

As interim administrator, Oswalt will begin the work of overhauling a district racked by financial and academic problems until the state Department of Education appoints a long-term replacement. Oswalt is not a candidate for the job, and an appointment is expected at the end of the month.

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The legislation that authorized Compton’s bailout gives a state-appointed administrator broad powers, including the authority to hire and fire employees and overhaul academic programs.

Some Compton school board members complained bitterly earlier this week after they learned that an interim administrator had been appointed. At Thursday’s meeting, however, they said little except to question the role they would have.

“The fact that we are removed from our offices sends a message that we are not representing the community,” Trustee Lynn Dymally said.

Oswalt and the instructional services staff, which is scattered throughout the district, will use the offices, he said.

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Board President Kevin Filer said that he regretted that the board has lost its authority, but that he understands it was a condition of receiving the state loan.

Filer said the board did not make difficult choices when it had the chance. Oswalt, Filer said, “will make the hard cuts, all the hard decisions.” Filer also said he did not mind turning over his office to Oswalt, but he is concerned that members of the community may not have access to the administrator.

At a meeting earlier this week, Trustee Amen Rahh said the takeover of the predominantly African-American and Latino school district is racist.

“They are coming in here with the attitude of a slave master, and the slave master never takes advice from a slave,” Rahh said.

Compton is one of only three financially troubled school districts in California that have been taken over by the state education office. The Richmond Unified School District in Contra Costa County was under the control of an administrator until it repaid a loan to the state and is back under local control. The Coachella Valley Unified School District in Riverside County, like Compton Unified, has an interim administrator and is awaiting the appointment of a permanent one.

A former school superintendent, Oswalt served as a state-appointed trustee in the West Covina Unified School District for five years until it repaid its $3.9-million loan to the state last year. A trustee does not have as much control as an administrator.

Oswalt spent most of Thursday’s meeting outlining the seven-member Compton school board’s remaining responsibilities. He said board members have a duty to convey the concerns of the community to him because they are the elected officials. He also assured them that they could still attend school functions.

Oswalt said he could not predict what budget cuts would be made until he meets with Acting Supt. Harold L. Cebrun and other administrators, but he promised a leaner bureaucracy and a tighter rein on expenses.

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No money from the state will be released until Oswalt submits an expense report for July. He will also begin developing a detailed spending plan for the 1993-94 school year that must be submitted to the state by Sept. 1.

Some staffing cuts already have been made. One of the final actions of the school board came last week, when it eliminated 110 non-teaching jobs to shave an estimated $1 million from the district’s $90-million budget. About 50 people were laid off.

Oswalt also said sweeping changes are needed to improve the district’s poor academic record. Test scores in the multiracial district have consistently been among the lowest in the state.

A harshly worded report released in May by the Los Angeles County Office of Education painted a grim picture of mismanagement and political cronyism and blamed the district’s problems on school board members.

It also said the Compton school system was crippled by a lack of leadership. Officials had never adequately addressed the need for bilingual education in the district, even though 57% of the 29,000 students are Latino.

Still pending in the Legislature is a bill introduced by Assemblyman Willard Murray (D-Paramount) that would allow the state Department of Education to retain control in the school district to help raise academic standards even after the financial problems have been resolved.

Many members of the audience applauded when Oswalt said he would meet with community groups that have flooded his office with requests for his time.

“We need someone to come straighten us out,” parent Gladys Russell said after the meeting. “We can’t hold (Oswalt) accountable, but we are going to make demands.”

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Oswalt said he expects to hear criticism from parents and labor leaders as unpopular cuts are made. He has scheduled meetings early next week with representatives of the three groups that represent management, teachers and other employees. The work has just begun, he added.

“Whether it’s myself or someone else, it’s going to hurt,” he said. “It’ll be painful, it’ll be controversial, and it’s going to hit the fan.”


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