State to End Takeover of Compton Schools

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time Compton ran its own schools, it set a new educational standard for failure.

Student test scores were the lowest in California. Featherbedding was so rampant that six secretaries did the work of one. Campus facilities were scarred by unwashable graffiti and unspeakable bathrooms. By 1993, the school district was $20 million in debt, and the state Department of Education took over.

Seven years after that unprecedented takeover, state education officials are quietly planning to relinquish control of the Compton Unified School District to the same local school board that nearly brought it to ruin. Citing modest gains in test scores and management of the system, the state this week will publicly declare victory in Compton, a rare if qualified triumph for the growing nationwide strategy of school takeovers by states.

That announcement, expected at a school board meeting Tuesday afternoon, could signal the beginning of the end of a tortuous, seven-year odyssey that is unique in California history. And it probably will mark the start of a turnover process that will give Compton its district back piecemeal over the next few years.

This fall, the state will return limited authority for the district's facilities and community relations programs to the elected but long-powerless board. Depending on how the board handles that assignment, other functions, including academic and financial management, could be transferred as early as next spring.

"I have so many mixed emotions about this, I'm ready to see a psychiatrist," said Randolph E. Ward, the state-appointed administrator for the district, who has begun considering other job offers.

"The school system is only now getting to normal. And . . . with local control, there's certainly potential for mismanagement and misuse of resources to occur again."

For Ward and state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who supports the plan, the transition process is stomach-turning.

On one hand, they are desperate to keep making improvements to the district. But at the same time, each advance on the scale will speed the hand-over to a city political leadership known for nepotism and a school board whose members include a convicted felon and a key witness in a Compton bribery scandal.

Compton Mayor Omar Bradley, an unapologetic proponent of patronage politics whose sister sits on the school board, has labeled the state takeover racist and made no secret of his desire to control the district and its $185.6-million general fund budget.

"It's a classic Catch-22," said Mark Deese, a Compton parent who wants the state to retain control.

The state's way out, according to a draft copy of its plan, will be to turn the transition period into a closely supervised test of the city board's management skills, with no firm timeline for completion.

Evaluating on a 10-Point Scale

Key to the plan is a 10-point scale under which the state is evaluating the school district's progress in five areas: facilities, finances, pupil achievement, personnel management and community relations.

When the district reaches 6 for a category--as it already has in facilities and community relations--the board will be given limited authority to manage those areas, although the state could block any move it deems illegal or financially irregular.

When the district achieves an average score of 7.5 in all five categories, Compton will resume control of all district operations, with one major caveat: A state trustee will retain oversight powers for up to two years.

"This is a big moment for Compton," said Tom Henry, the chief administrative officer for the state's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, which is doing the numerical ratings for Compton at the direction of the Legislature.

"This setup provides the board with a fair opportunity to assume new authority. And it allows the state to determine whether the board and the community [are] ready and willing and able to assume those new responsibilities."

Henry and state officials expect fierce opposition to the piecemeal plan from the teachers union and city leaders, who believe the state is moving too slowly to restore local control.

Bradley, who became mayor in the year of the takeover, said of the turnover Friday, "the sooner the better," though he said he understood that "it won't be an overnight process."

Basil Kimbrew, vice president of the school board, said he would fight any phased-in plan. "They should give everything back now," he said. "There's no reason for the state to stay here. We can handle this ourselves."

The school district Kimbrew wants to handle is Compton's largest employer. It has about 1,500 teachers and nearly 31,000 students, two-thirds of them Latino, one-third African American, and nearly all of them poor enough to qualify for federal free lunches.

The district operated in obscurity until 1993, when an unexpected $20-million shortfall forced the school board to ask the state for two emergency loans. In exchange, the state got control.

Compton was the first school district in California taken over for both academic and financial bankruptcy, putting it in the forefront of a nationwide debate over state oversight and school reform.

Since 1989, 19 states have assumed authority in 40 school districts. Critics say such takeovers, with two exceptions, have no clear record of success and often end up disenfranchising city voters.

"The bottom line is that state takeovers, with perhaps a few exceptions, have yet to produce dramatic and consistent increases in student performance," said Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which compiles data on the phenomenon. "In some cases, the state has had its own setbacks."

At first, Compton did not appear to be a candidate to beat the odds. State officials concede that the first three years of their supervision saw the school district fall deeper into decay.

Four state-appointed administrators came and went, with one claiming he had been shot at for his trouble. Leaky roofs and broken windows went unrepaired, and textbooks weren't ordered.

Even small changes were fiercely opposed by city politicians, who called Sacramento's presence in Compton "an illegal occupation of the schools." The city helped lead court challenges to a half-dozen policies, and even fought a $107-million bond bill for badly needed school construction.

So little progress was made that in 1997 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a broad suit against the state, claiming that Compton children were being denied their right to an education.

At the time of the lawsuit, Ward, now 43, was settling into his job. A brash Massachusetts native with a master's degree from Harvard and a doctorate from USC, he had developed a reputation for turning around a poor elementary school in Long Beach. In his job interview, he told Eastin that he would be the fifth--and last--administrator, the one who would turn around the district.

Communicating with yellow adhesive notes and a Boston accent that stops teachers in their tracks, Ward changed every major district program and policy.

Textbook ordering was revamped. The grading system was overhauled. Social promotion was eliminated in some grades. The district launched its own teacher certification program, new training initiatives, even a payment plan that gives new teachers $300 at the beginning of the year to spend as they choose on supplies.

Even Critics See Big Improvements

Even Ward's critics concede that he has made strong gains in improving finances and facilities. He graded campuses on their cleanliness, and had the marks posted on their front doors. The district re-roofed more than 200 leaky buildings and wired all its schools for the Internet.

New financial controls have reduced accounting mistakes; audits found only $254,000 in errors in 1999, down from $2 million in 1997. And the district is on track to pay off the last $3.7 million of 1993's $20-million relief package next summer. To be sure, all of these changes were eased by generous state funding; the Compton budget is almost double what it was in 1993.

But academic gains have come more slowly and remain fragile, Ward said. More than half the schools saw significant increases on the Stanford 9, a basic skills test given to students in grades two through 11, but others have fallen back. And the overall scores put Compton well below state and national averages.

"You have to give credit; a lot of improvements have been made," said Tom Hollister, executive director of Compton's teachers union, which has been critical of the state and supportive of a return to home rule. "The facilities are much better, and the test scores are going in the right direction. But there's still a lot to do."

Henry, of the crisis management team, says a key problem is that Ward's changes haven't had time to take firm root. And state officials concede that there are areas where they've made little progress.

Retention and recruitment of faculty remain very difficult, a "Berlin Wall"--in Ward's phrase--that the district has not been able to scale.

Compton's personnel policies remain under federal scrutiny after a U.S. Department of Education investigation of racial discrimination and harassment in the schools. And the current year has seen problems with a computerized attendance system and some backsliding on facilities issues, with teachers returning to find copiers broken and furniture missing.

Despite the signs of progress, Ward has yet to win much support from even sympathetic residents, who have called him abrasive or worse.

"The state has been so busy making changes," said Cleveland Palmer, an art teacher at Centennial High who favors local control, "that it has never been in touch with the community and the leaders in the same way that the city would be."

Asked about outreach to city leaders, Ward said: "That is definitely my biggest disappointment."

With the transition to local control coming, the state administrator has focused on trying to lock in his reforms so they cannot be easily undone by the school board. In one instance, He tied up one prominent piece of school land in a 99-year lease that guarantees at least $600,000 annually to the district and prevents the city from selling it to the politically connected developers who covet it.

In a similar vein, Ward has embraced the ACLU's lawsuit, settling it with a consent decree that will govern much of the district's operations long after the state has departed. Included in that consent decree, at Ward's insistence, is a 10-year facilities master plan that should limit the city's maneuvering room on contracts and spending.

The state's crisis team also has a role in monitoring the consent decree's terms.

"This was the most troubled school district in the state, and I don't think anyone would begin to say that now," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California. "I think that Ward and Supt. Eastin have been serious in their commitment to improving conditions, and I think there have been material improvements."

Such testimonials have made Ward something of a star in education circles. He has fielded book offers. Dallas is considering him for school superintendent. Compton has been visited by university researchers. The education entrepreneur Chris Whittle has sought his counsel on behalf of his company, Edison Schools Inc., the largest private manager of public schools in America, with 108 campuses in 45 cities.

"In the world of state takeovers, I'd put the one in Compton right near the top," said Whittle. "And the first ingredient, and this is not a small ingredient, has been Randy."

Ward says he doesn't plan to stay with the district much longer. But he says the state's legacy will live on through the new, young principals he has nurtured.

Todd Irving, the 36-year-old head of Centennial High School, is one. Walking around the 1,075-student campus, the district's small victories--and remaining challenges--are clear. Buildings and bathrooms are free of graffiti, but several rooms that suffered damage in a series of arsons last year have not been fixed. The grass is literally greener, but many of the walls need painting.

Teachers have more textbooks and supplies, but the science instructors grumble about the absence of lab equipment. There are more Advanced Placement courses, but fewer offerings in the arts and a very limited gym. There are good fences and tighter security, but Centennial, Irving says, still must deal with Bloods gang members.

With that, Irving chases a dozen students who are dawdling outside. That is a sign of progress, too. When he arrived at Centennial four years ago, he says, the teachers also were missing class.

"I think the school and the district need continuity," said Irving, who has turned down job offers from other cities. "But if the state left, I'd think about going. After all the blood and sweat and tears, I don't think I could stand to watch anyone take apart what we've tried to build."

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