State-Appointed School Czar Faces Test in Sometimes Hostile Compton
Stanley G. Oswalt left retirement to live a brief but compelling fantasy for a man who served 24 years as a school district superintendent.
After a career of bending to hostile parents, combative unions and meddling school boards, Oswalt, 69, gets to call all the shots in the financially and academically struggling Compton Unified School District.
Oswalt, who was appointed by the state, will hold these czarlike powers for two to three months until the state Department of Education chooses a long-term administrator for Compton Unified.
But this dream job has become something of a nightmare. Oswalt must preside over about $8 million in budget cuts in a school district that struggles to serve a needy student population beset by poverty and broken families.
The school district agreed to turn over authority to a state administrator as a condition for receiving a $10.5-million emergency state loan. And Oswalt is a specialist in helping problem-plagued school systems.
He arrived this month at a sometimes hostile, demoralized school system. Many parents and employees resent the state intervention and question Oswalt’s style and ability.
If the past is prologue, one thing is certain: Oswalt can take the heat. He might even like it.
“There’s a need and you feel you can assist,” said Oswalt, a stocky, proper man with neatly parted white hair. “The state asked me if I would do this. They have been very good to me, so I said, ‘Yes, I will help you.’ ”
And the idea of absolute authority is intriguing.
“That’s kind of interesting to a superintendent,” Oswalt said dryly.
Oswalt did not apply for the Compton job, but state officials called him an obvious choice. From 1963 till his retirement in 1987, Oswalt headed the Rowland Unified School District in eastern Los Angeles County.
Since then the Huntington Beach resident has solved financial or management problems in several school districts. He has taught college courses in school administration, and many former subordinates have become successful school superintendents. Oswalt preaches financial responsibility and putting students’ classroom needs first.
In 1987, the state appointed Oswalt trustee for the West Covina Unified School District. Like Compton Unified, West Covina had received an emergency state loan.
Oswalt’s job was to reorganize district finances and ensure repayment of the $3.3-million loan. Unlike his job in Compton, Oswalt did not oversee all operations but he did have veto power over all expenditures.
Oswalt met with some hostility as he oversaw budget cuts of $3.16 million in 1987 and $926,000 in 1988. But he eventually won most parties over, former board member Elba Comeau said.
“They were glad to be led out of the woods and he did a beautiful job,” Comeau said.
Oswalt developed plans to cut expenses and increase revenues. He suggested transferring summer school programs from a community college to the district’s adult school, Assistant Supt. Martha Evans Smith said. The change allowed the district to receive additional money for every student.
He also consolidated schools because of dropping enrollment, then leased or sold unused facilities.
West Covina was able to repay its loan 18 months ahead of schedule, board President Mike Carrigan said.
In spring, 1991, Oswalt was approached by the Bonita Unified School District, which was on the county’s watch list of financially troubled school districts. He agreed to serve as interim superintendent.
The district, which serves San Dimas and La Verne, got off the list in less than a year, board President Robert M. Green said.
“Stan will not hesitate to tell board members when they are doing something wrong,” Green said. “He doesn’t play politics. He keeps reminding you, you’re only here to educate the kids, not to provide full employment.”
In Bonita, Oswalt decided that the district’s busing service should pay for itself. So he charged fees for taking the bus and arranged for community groups to pay the bill for impoverished families. He worked a similar arrangement for the district’s child-care program.
Also under Oswalt’s leadership, the district became one of the first to levy property owners an annual fee to help maintain district tennis courts, playing fields and other facilities that are open to the public.
The move infuriated some residents. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. filed suit, calling the fee an illegal property tax, but courts upheld it.
In Compton, state education officials assumed control because of financial problems, but Oswalt is charged with improving academic programs. Student achievement test scores are among the lowest in the state.
Skeptics question whether Oswalt is up to perhaps his most daunting challenge. Compton Unified is larger than any school system he has headed. Its students are poorer. The budget cuts and the loan are larger.
And never before has Oswalt come under fire for being an Anglo or for choosing Anglo consultants to assist him. Issues of race are a lightning rod in Compton, where middle-class African-Americans fought for a generation against racism to make inroads into neighborhoods and local politics.
Oswalt is “cutting the existing minority employees and hiring predominantly European-Caucasian employees,” said school board member Amen Rahh. “His action has demonstrated complete contempt for the African-American and Latino community.”
Oswalt said that he will bring in the best available people and give all minority candidates full consideration.
Board member John Steward said that Oswalt could do more harm than good with sweeping decisions based on incomplete knowledge of the district or its people.
Others called Oswalt autocratic.
“I think he came in with an assumption of across-the-board incompetence,” said one administrator who asked not to be identified.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Oswalt announced 69 layoff notices and a 7% pay cut for administrators. Other employees also face reduced pay, he warned a discontented audience of more than 250.
Unhappy employees and officials accused Oswalt of being a racist and having a God complex. Oswalt listened attentively but impassively, though he reddened noticeably during some pointed attacks. He looked directly at each speaker, but rarely responded, except to questions.
Before adjourning the meeting he spoke calmly and to the point. “I know it’s distasteful,” he said of the cuts. “I know it’s heartbreaking, but I don’t know of any choice.”
Anyone with a better idea “should come see me first thing tomorrow morning,” he said, “but lottery tickets don’t count.”
Profile:Stanley G. Oswalt
* Age: 69
* Residence: Huntington Beach
* Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, Whittier College, 1950; master’s degree in school administration, USC, 1957; doctorate in school administration and school finance, USC, 1967.
* Career highlights: Named interim state administrator, Compton Unified School District, in July; was business consultant, Ocean View Elementary School District in Orange County, 1992-93; interim superintendent, Bonita Unified School District, 1992; state trustee, West Covina Unified School District, 1987-92; superintendent, Rowland Unified School District, 1963-87.
* Family: Married, with three daughters and three grandchildren
* Quote: “It’s important to recognize that we’ve hit bottom and from now on we’re on our way up. . . . We’re going to be accountable and we’re going to improve.”