Compton Near Hiring New Schools Chief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jesse Gonzales, a longtime school superintendent in New Mexico, has emerged as a leading candidate to become the first locally appointed superintendent of the state-run Compton schools in eight years, according to three people familiar with the search.

Gonzales was one of four finalists interviewed by members of Compton's elected school board Friday and Saturday. All four come from outside the district, and two, including Gonzales, are from out of state.

The appointment is seen as a milestone in the return of the 31,000-student district to local control after an unprecedented state takeover. Since Compton's schools were seized by the state in 1993 because of financial and academic difficulties, the district has been run by a series of administrators appointed by the state's superintendent of public instruction.

The selection of the superintendent is the first major decision to be made by Compton's school board since the state began to restore the board's powers in January.

A decision is supposed to be made by June 26, according to an internal memorandum obtained by The Times.

Efforts to reach the four finalists, school district spokesman Fausto Capobianco and search consultant LaVoneia C. Steele were unsuccessful Sunday.

The finalists were interviewed by school board members and a committee of community representatives. Three people present said that while Gonzales stood clearly ahead of the pack, two other finalists--both from the Moreno Valley Unified School District--were impressive. They were Supt. Anita Suazo and her deputy, John Costello.

Suazo and Costello have had disagreements with their school board and appear to be on their way out.

A fourth finalist, former Dallas Assistant Supt. R. Mark Harris, appeared to have less support after the interviews, the sources said.

Compton school officials said they were gratified to receive more than 100 applications from across the country. The new superintendent is expected to come under intense scrutiny in a city where politicians routinely denounce the district and its state-appointed administrators.

The current administrator, Randolph E. Ward, travels with a bodyguard assigned by the state.

The search identified seven candidates, and only the final four have submitted to interviews, according to sources. Some board members had complained about a lack of African American candidates. Harris was the only black finalist.

School officials have emphasized secrecy in the search, but three sources provided the names to The Times in hope, they said, that the finalists' previous employers might come forward with any concerns before a final decision is made.

Gonzales, who is bilingual, has been superintendent of schools in Las Cruces, N.M., since 1989. That district is about the same size as Compton's. There he has been praised for fighting gang activity and emphasizing the preparation of students for work. Previously, he was a teacher, principal, coach and counselor, working in California and New Mexico.

Suazo also is a candidate for Pasadena Unified's top job. She took over in Moreno Valley in August 1998 and has been credited with improving test scores and community relations. She started as a teacher's aide in 1966, and has worked in the Los Angeles Unified and South Whittier School districts. She was fired as superintendent of the Garvey School District in Rosemead in 1996, and received more than $135,000 as a result of a claim she filed against the district.

Her deputy, Costello, was recently told by the Moreno Valley school board that his contract would not be renewed, according to news reports.

Harris, the former Dallas official, spent most of his career in Atlantic City, N.J., where he was superintendent until 1996. He also was superintendent of the Cabrillo Unified School District in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

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