Roofs need repairing, two of three high schools have been closed and the school district rarely qualifies for special funding.
Still, most educators would gladly take the job of superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, as Ann Nesbitt Chlebicki did earlier this month.
Palos Verdes students consistently have some of the state's highest test scores, parents last year chipped in $640,000 for math, computer and drug-abuse programs, and schoolyard violence is rare.
Chlebicki (pronounced kleh- bick -ee) says she has a vision for improving the 8,600-student district, where she expects to remain for 10 years. Chlebicki will not be specific because she says she first wants to talk with parents, teachers and students, and does not want to influence them. But she says her guiding principle is: "There is only one side to take: the side of the children."
Her three-year, $104,000-a-year contract officially begins Oct. 10, but Chlebicki, 44, has already begun making the 45-minute drive between her Huntington Beach home and the peninsula as she becomes acquainted with her new job.
She replaces Michael W. Caston, who left Palos Verdes to run the Santa Barbara school district in April.
Chlebicki's former colleagues say the peninsula district has hired an insightful, hard-working administrator known for her ability to listen to all sides.
Chlebicki's boss for the past nine years credits her with keeping abreast of educational and technological developments, and showing planning and leadership skills--doing her job and doing it well.
"If you saw what she did, you'd know she did it better than at most school districts," said Peter A. Hartman, superintendent of Saddleback Valley Unified School District in Orange County.
Chlebicki, even by her own account, is persistent and tenacious.
"She is a tough negotiator. She's not a pushover," said George Anderson, an eighth-grade history teacher in Saddleback Valley and president of the 1,250-member teachers union. "She's very thorough and she's well-prepared, and it's not easy to get her to change her opinion."
Chlebicki says she vigorously pursues her goals only after consulting with other interested parties and achieving a consensus.
Chlebicki began her career as a business and computer science teacher at Huntington Beach High School, and later served as assistant principal and principal.
As principal, Chlebicki discovered that a handful of female students were suffering from eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, and made headlines when she called attention to the often ignored maladies in a 1985 newsletter to parents. Chlebicki then worked with teachers and students to help identify other students with eating disorders.
"I have some concerns about the societal pressures that are put on young girls," Chlebicki said. "The image is more important than the soul."
That same year, a Huntington Beach city committee chose Chlebicki as the grand marshal for the city's annual Fourth of July parade.
"I believe it was because the community became part of the high school again, and vice versa," she said, referring to efforts to promote communication between students and alumni, especially senior citizens.
A month later, Chlebicki was promoted to director of curriculum and staff development for intermediate and high schools in Saddleback Valley. Two years later, she was promoted to assistant superintendent for instructional services. The district serves 28,000 students.
In 1987, Chlebicki also was named to a four-year term on a 16-member state commission that recommends textbooks and other instructional materials.
Hartman says he has never received a complaint about Chlebicki.
One of Chlebicki's jobs on the peninsula will be to help raise money for the district. The state provides about $3,400 for each student, said interim Supt. Erwin N. Jones. But the district receives little, if any, special state funding.
Also needed is money to repair aging buildings. The board recently budgeted $1.5 million to repair roofs, Jones said, but he estimated that the district could use another $6 million.
Chlebicki, who grew up on Staten Island in New York City, received bachelor's and master's degrees in business and computer education from Boston University. She earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from USC.
She moved to California when her husband, Gene, now the chief operating officer for a medical trade association, was transferred.
Chlebicki, who says she gets up at 4:45 a.m. on weekdays (5:30 a.m. on weekends) for her morning walks, is described as caring by her daughter, Cara, 11, who tells of her mom making chicken noodle soup for sick neighbors.
And her son, Craig, 15, talks of her determination.
"If she has an idea in her head," said Craig, "she will carry it out and stick with it."
It is an assessment Chlebicki agrees with. "If you want the project done, give it to Chlebicki," she said.