Apodaca: If Hubbard should leave, Reed is more than capable

I'm going to go out on a limb — not a particularly long one — and predict that Jeffrey Hubbard won't be Newport-Mesa Unified School District's superintendent much longer.

Of course, if Hubbard is convicted it would be a fait accomplis. He is charged with three felony counts of misappropriating funds during his previous job as head of the Beverly Hills public schools; a guilty verdict would send him packing.

But even without knowing the outcome of Hubbard's trial, which is in jury deliberations, it's hardly a stretch to assume that the accumulated weight of all of the schools chief's baggage will result in his departure in the not-too-distant future.

Regardless of the verdict, Hubbard has become a highly polarizing figure in the community. He has lost support among teachers and parents, particularly in light of the sexually suggestive e-mails he sent to a co-defendant, and his controversial five-month paid leave last year.

Some school board members have staunchly defended Hubbard, but even their support could wear thin under pressure from a disgruntled public. After all, the November elections are looming. If Hubbard is acquitted, it's not inconceivable that his friends would engineer a thinly disguised face-saving exit for him.

Which would leave the district precisely where?

The school board would presumably move quickly to replace Hubbard in an attempt to close this seedy and embarrassing chapter.

But until then, the district would be in the capable hands of Paul Reed, the deputy superintendent and chief business official who has filled in for Hubbard during his absences, and who — one could easily argue — should have been in charge all along. He is the go-to guy who has steered the district on a relatively steady financial course at a time when districts throughout the state are on the brink of insolvency.

Reed doesn't aspire to the Miss Congeniality award — the person watching the bottom line is seldom the most popular — but he is intelligent, refreshingly forthright and intent on making responsible decisions to preserve the district's solvency.

With his gray hair, sweater vests and avuncular looks, Reed resembles a slimmer version of the actor Wilford Brimley. He has a dry, gallows sense of humor, and seems to enjoy the role of amiable curmudgeon. He attributes his demeanor to the fact that, "I've been in this game way too long."

At 64, Reed could easily retire; in the absurd calculus of pension benefits he would actually earn more than he does now.

But he has no plans to leave, saying — with an implied wink — "I may as well work. I don't play golf. And my wife won't like this, but at work people actually listen to me and do what I say."

The district will need Reed's experience and good sense to steer it through the crucial days ahead.

In case you missed it, public education in California is a train wreck. Budget cuts have decimated school funding, and educational quality has suffered badly. Our kids are already being shortchanged, and now the situation is in danger of growing worse.

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal calls for $4.8 billion in education cuts — the equivalent of three weeks of the academic year — if voters reject the temporary tax hikes he plans to put on the November ballot.

Those cuts would send some districts off the financial cliff, but Newport-Mesa stands to survive — for now.

That's thanks largely to Reed's prescience. A few years back, he saw the writing on the blackboard, and shepherded a $25-million reduction in the district's budget over a three-year period.

Rather than dictating to others, Reed said he presented the numbers to department heads and asked them to decide where the cuts should be made. Ultimately, about 100 positions were eliminated. A telling result has emerged at the primary level, where the average class size has increased from 18 to 25.

That's not an outcome that anyone is cheering about, but it's meant that for the 2012-13 school year no further cuts will be necessary, even if Brown's tax initiative fails.

After that, however, "we would have to cut," said Reed. "I'm prepared to handle the worst."

Further cluttering the outlook are other measures that would put more dents in school services. For instance, Brown recently announced that all school transportation funding would be eliminated for the rest of the fiscal year.

That would result in a loss of $1.2 million in annual funding to Newport-Mesa, but, as always, Reed was thinking ahead and already accounted for part of it.

The rest "isn't insurmountable, but it is problematic," he said.

More worrisome is that Brown's proposed budget calls for a change in the way school funding is distributed. Called the "weighted student formula," its goal would be to allocate more funding to students most in need.

"There would be significant winners and losers in the state," said Reed. "We'd be a loser."

When Reed makes such pronouncements, I take them seriously and count on him to figure out how to respond. He's like a stern but caring uncle who takes away the car keys when you've blown your entire allowance. He does what's necessary, and for your own good.

It's not a fun job, but someone's got to do it. Yet I expect that the no-drama Reed derives some satisfaction out of providing calm in the middle of a storm. As the skies darken, we need that calm more than ever.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach

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