The man behind the numbers

Meet Paul Reed. He's Newport-Mesa Unified's chief business official and deputy superintendent of finance. The state's financial troubles have trickled down, causing a $13.5-million hole in the district's budget this year. It led to tough decisions and the subsequent layoffs of more than 100 teachers in the district. Many of them have since been hired back. Reed, 63, is always at the forefront of the bad news. Still, district colleagues say they don't know what they would do without Reed, a financial guru who likes to play it tough but reportedly has a soft heart. Still, he can't seem to shake those nicknames — "Dr. No" and "The Great Barrier Reed."

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Forget about numbers and math for a minute. Where were you born?

I was born in a clinic on Catalina Island, which had no true hospital at the time.

A clinic? Really?

Yes, it was a private clinic run by the town's only doctor. It was actually the former summer home of Gen. George S. Patton's parents, and it was about a block from the beach. But the Patton family no longer owned it. This doctor owned it, and that's where I was born. Today, there are other buildings on the site, like a library and a jail. I always tell my mom that I was born where the library is today, but she assures me it was the jail.

What was it like growing up on Catalina Island? Did you venture off the island often? And how did you have fun as a teenager?

In the '50s and '60s, when I was growing up, the island had a very seasonal economy based on tourism and the Great White Steamer, which only ran from May to mid-September. So for four months or so out of the year, everyone went to work. I started working summers when I was 12. I worked in a souvenir shop, selling stuff that doesn't exist today: film. I remember I made a $1.25 an hour, about $10 a day. I still have the Social Security statements that show I made $600. That was a lot back then, but you worked a lot. The deal with Catalina is you had to make it through the winter. There were very few jobs in the winter. Back then, we were a sleepy little town of about 2,000 people, where everyone knew everyone. We could have been a small town in Nebraska, except we had the ocean in our front yard.

What did your parents do?

My family ran a restaurant and bar, the Village, on Crescent Street from the 1930s to the mid-1970s.

Where did you go to high school?

My K-12 school experience was in one school, which had separate buildings for the elementary and secondary school programs, and at the time we had about 375 kids total. There were 32 in my graduating class. We were a large group. The class before us numbered 16.

Where did you go to college?

I was in the "charter" — or the first four-year class at UCI. By the time I got my bachelor's degree, UCI was larger than my home town.

What did you study?

History. I stayed at UCI for graduate work in history, too.

That's interesting. Your position is in finance, and you're a history buff. Why was history important to you?

I've always liked history. It's the human drama across the ages. You can understand everything much better if you understand the history behind it. For example, the whole clash of civilizations with the Muslim world isn't anything new. It's been going on for the last 1,500 years. But some people don't understand this because they don't know the history behind it. They say, "Oh, I can't believe this happening," but it's been happening for some time now. If you understand that, and if you know history, it helps put everything in perspective.

How did you make the jump from history to balancing the books at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District?

I was trained "in house" in school finance by a CBO [chief business official] who taught at Columbia University in New York City. He was at the Irvine Unified School District when I was working there. But I really first got started as a negotiator for the district. Labor negotiations touch on all the aspects of the business. That was the entrée. Then Ron Upton, the CBO, took me under his wing and taught me.

How long did you work for the Irvine district?

For 26 years.

When were you hired by Newport-Mesa?

In June 2002.

That's a lot of years in education. How many years have you been working in the field of education?

Well, I think it's 42 years now, maybe 43. You have to remember: If there aren't money signs behind the numbers, I have a hard time keeping track.

Speaking of numbers, what do you think of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget?

It's a piece of fiction.

What kind of fiction?

Arnold in Wonderland.

Why?

It's fiction because everyone knew when the budget was passed that it was entirely based on fantastical thinking. They didn't have real income to count on, so they made up a number of assumptions such as "rich Uncle Sam sends California three times as much money as we can really expect."

What do you think about politics in Sacramento as a whole?

If you look up "dysfunctional" in the dictionary, you're likely to find a picture of California. The state's balance between income and expenditure is seriously out of whack. Whether it can be fixed within the current structure is the question of the day.

What is the current fiscal situation of the district, given the state's cutbacks and the economic recession?

Newport-Mesa is, as I like to tell the board, "solvent and moving forward." We modulated the expenditure profile early as the state slid into the recession, and the board has been diligent about maintaining our fiscal stability.

Do you think there will be midyear cuts?

The governor has just called a special session, acknowledging that the 100-day-old state budget was never balanced in the first place. The state has a serious problem. Midyear cuts from Sacramento are a possibility.

What is the hardest decision you've ever made as the district's CBO?

There have been many. It is always difficult to stand before a Board of Education and a superintendent [Jeffrey Hubbard] and advise that the district's programs have to be trimmed, services to kids cut and jobs eliminated.

What is the savviest financial maneuver ever performed to save money?

In Newport-Mesa, it was to persevere through a five-year effort to secure $15 million from the state for the rebuilding of the Robins-Loats Building at Newport Harbor [High School], which then freed up Measure F funds to build the Costa Mesa Aquatics Center earlier than otherwise would have been possible.

What's the most satisfying aspect of your job?

Making things happen.

What do you do in your spare time?

I read a great deal, and I enjoy carpentry.

Are you married? Children?

I've been married to the love of my life, Sally, for 32 years and we have three beautiful and talented daughters. They all take after their mother.

Would you care to elaborate on your nicknames, which have preceded your reputation — that is "Dr. No" and "The Great Barrier Reed?"

Let's just say that a school district is all about providing educational services to kids. Educators keep looking for ways to do that even better. Unfortunately, when ideas cost money we don't have, I'm the one who has to say "No."

If you had one dream job, what would it be?

The best job I ever had, though it certainly didn't pay well, was taking tourists sailing along the Catalina coast in a racing trimaran. I got to work barefoot and spend the day sailing.

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