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Calif. Administrators Ponder Impact of Honig's Indictment

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Educators and school administrators across California have begun to wonder aloud how education will fare in the current legislative session with Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, their hard-charging point man, busy defending himself against conflict-of-interest charges.

Mr. Honig, who last week formally pleaded innocent to four state felony counts, has vowed that the case will not alter his attention to the job.

Nevertheless, supporters and critics alike are expecting a leadership gap at a time when California schools are struggling with tight budgets and a controversial proposed "choice'' ballot initiative that would provide state aid to parents whose children attend private schools.

Many of the state's largest education associations have issued formal statements of support for Mr. Honig. At the same time, however, they have begun deliberating over how their top officials can intervene in his place before the legislature.

"We all accept the fact that Bill is going to be distracted,'' said Wes Apker, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. "At the state level, a lot of us feel like we're going to have to pick up the cudgel a little bit. But that does not mean business as usual--none of us have been playing the point as long as Bill.''

Vendetta Alleged, Denied

Mr. Honig appeared in court last week to deny the four charges, which concern federal funds that were awarded by the state to a parental-involvement program in three California school districts. At the time, his wife, Nancy, was president of the program, known as the Quality Education Project.

A grand jury returned an indictment in the case late last month. Documents filed in the Sacramento County Superior Court focus on more than $330,000 used to pay the salary of four school-district employees who administered Q.E.P. programs between 1986 and 1988.

The court documents state that the Q.E.P. program produced financial gains for both Mr. and Ms. Honig through her salary, which rose from $25,000 in 1985 to $108,500 in 1990. She has since resigned her post.

Mr. Honig, an elected Democrat, has blasted Attorney General Daniel E. Lungren, a Republican, for taking the case to court. The school chief has argued that the investigation and indictment are the revenge of "right wing'' politicians and interest groups who oppose his policies.

After the indictments were made public last week, however, Mr. Lungren denied any vendetta and called Mr. Honig's accusations unfair.

"There is nothing out of the ordinary in what we are doing,'' he said.

Conservative groups also dispute Mr. Honig's rhetorical jabs.

Kathi Hudson, the vice president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a group that has disagreed with Mr. Honig over his stance on the teaching of evolution, disputed Mr. Honig's claim that the indictments are a sign of a conservative coup. Instead, she contended, the actions that are at issue are the latest in a series of cavalier moves by the superintendent that deserve scrutiny.

"He just thinks he's above what everyone else is subject to,'' Ms. Hudson said, pointing to Mr. Honig's continuing dispute with the Republican-dominated state board of education. "He has basically become a dictator of the state education system. It's good that these matters are finally being looked into.''

But others who have disagreed with Mr. Honig in the past have sided with the superintendent.

"He's one of the giants in public service,'' argued Ralph J. Flynn, executive director of the California Teachers Association, which refused to endorse Mr. Honig in previous elections because of policy differences. "Whatever weaknesses he may have, this is not a venal man. And this is not a guy who is going to hide in the closet.''

'A Major Burden'

Despite cries in some quarters for him to step down, Mr. Honig reported to work as usual in the week following the indictment and will maintain his normal routine of office hours and district visits, said William L. Rukeyser, a top aide.

"It is not frenzied like it was, but still it is a major burden and will be until a judge dismisses the charges or it goes to a jury,'' Mr. Rukeyser said.

"Sometimes it will take an 18-hour day instead of a 14-hour day,'' he added.

The state's educators, however, report growing worries about how much the personal legal battle will detract from the political battles brewing the state capital.

"It is a very real concern,'' said Lawrence Kemper, superintendent of the Baldwin Park Unified School District. "To have this in the way at a time when the budget issue is such a big problem, there is no question that we are worried.''

Mr. Kemper doubted that association officials can command attention equal to Mr. Honig.

"All of the organizations can get together, and I think we are united, but without his pulpit, our access to the public is going to be greatly diminished,'' he said. "The timing couldn't be much worse.''

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