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Ex-school district leader found dead two months after stepping down amid questions

Ex-school district leader found dead two months after stepping down amid questions
Former school district Supt. Kent Taylor, 54, shown in 2012, was found dead Sunday in his home in San Bernardino County. Authorities are investigating. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Former Lennox School District Supt. Kent Taylor, 54, was found dead Sunday at his home in San Bernardino County two months after stepping down amid questions over his management of the school system, officials confirmed Monday.

His oversight of the South Bay-area school district, which faces possible insolvency, had been under scrutiny on several fronts. He also recently resigned from the school board for the Colton school district.

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Taylor, who became superintendent at Lennox in 2013, was regarded by admirers as an energetic and innovative educator but by critics as someone who pushed aggressively into gray areas of the law, with questionable benefit for students.

“I am heartbroken at the loss of my friend and educator Kent Taylor,” tweeted state Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, who represents the Lennox area. “Lennox has lost a true leader.”

Taylor’s most controversial venture was having far-flung Catholic schools enroll their tuition-paying students into a new Lennox online academy. Lennox then claimed state public school funding for the students and used some of the money to buy computers for the Catholic schools.

Enrollment had been declining in the Lennox School District for more than a decade by the time Taylor decided to open the virtual academy in 2016, part of a concerted effort to build enrollment, The Times reported. By then, the student population had fallen to 5,055, nearly 25% below what it had been in 2006.

"We're trying to be on the cutting edge so we can make sure students' lives get changed and their trajectory in the future can be great," Taylor in 2017 told The Times, which published an investigation of the project.

Officers responded to a call Sunday afternoon in the 22100 block of Mavis Street in Grand Terrace, said Sgt. Jeff Allison, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Authorities have released no cause of death pending the completion of an investigation. However, investigators do not believe outside parties played a role in Taylor’s death, according to the department.

The Lennox school system has about 7,000 students and is located east of Los Angeles International Airport. County education officials confirmed to The Times on Monday that the school district is on the brink of insolvency, with insufficient reserves to pay its bills, according to a May 31 analysis. In that same analysis, county education office Supt. Debra Duardo disclosed her decision to install a “fiscal advisor” with authority to rescind actions taken by the elected Lennox Board of Education.

The budget problems have been exacerbated by the pending loss of the Catholic school project, which Taylor agreed to shut down after this year, according to the county.

“We discussed the legal concerns regarding the program,” Duardo wrote in an October letter to Taylor. “During that call, you agreed that you would eliminate the program at the beginning of the new fiscal year.”

On April 9, Taylor resigned from his Lennox superintendency and his Colton board position. Taylor had been elected to the Colton board five times starting in 1999, a span that included one break in service when he moved to accept a job in another part of the state.

Two days after Taylor’s resignations, the Los Angeles County Office of Education sent a letter to the Lennox district expressing concerns, which were first reported by the Daily Breeze.

In the April 11 letter, county officials flagged the district’s deficit spending as well as its failure to maintain adequate reserves and fund balances, inability to estimate the ending fund balance, ignorance of legally required budget procedures and “lack of monitoring of cash.”

The Breeze also reported on potential conflicts of interest and questionable arrangements with contractors.

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Taylor spent much of his childhood in Inglewood, although his professional career had unfolded elsewhere. He worked as a special education teacher in San Bernardino, became a principal and then a district supervisor overseeing curriculum and intervention programs for struggling students. In July 2011, he moved with his wife and three children to the Antelope Valley town of Rosamond, where he was named superintendent of the small Southern Kern Unified School District.

He guided that school system out of financial difficulties, leading to high hopes when he returned to Inglewood in 2012 as the state-appointed administrator of a school system teetering on bankruptcy.

He was the hometown boy made good, returning to help others do likewise.

"There was something special inside him that made him stand out," Mary Boykin, one of his former English teachers, said at the time. "I recall talking to him a great deal about his desire to go to college, his desire to be somebody. He was one of those you don't ever forget."

But the stint in Inglewood proved brief. State officials forced him out after two months on allegations that he agreed to a tentative teachers’ contract without their authorization. The state was in control per the terms of its bail-out loan to keep the school system afloat.

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