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Calif. District Takeover Faces Political Threat

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If the movie-makers in nearby Hollywood were to turn their cameras toward the Compton, Calif., public schools, they might well name their film, "How Not To Take Over a School District."

Nearly four years after state education officials seized control, they are struggling to overcome the impression that little has improved in the troubled 28,800-student system.

Many school facilities remain decrepit, despite a recent fix-up campaign. Test scores, while up slightly, are still stuck in the cellar. Teacher turnover is so high that more than half of the district's 1,100-member faculty hold only emergency teaching credentials.

Against this backdrop, the state education department is facing an unprecedented political threat to its continued control of the district. Late last week, the California Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill that would strip the state education chief of much of her authority to call the shots in the beleaguered district.

The measure, which is being pushed by the Compton teachers' union and local politicians, spells out a game plan for returning the district to local control by July 1, 2000. A spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said she will fight the bill as it moves to the Senate.

By all accounts, it took years for Compton's schools to sink to this point, and no one expected them to turn around overnight. Moreover, the adversarial nature of the takeover was virtually guaranteed to engender resistance and hard feelings in the community.

Still, even top state education officials concede that they have not always helped their own cause.

"We're getting some systems in place to get rid of the nepotism, corruption, and graft that had really run the district into the ground," said J. Richard Whitmore, the state education department's chief deputy superintendent. Nonetheless, he said, Compton's "biggest need is for consistent leadership, and leadership that's working together."

Turnover at the Top

Since the takeover in July 1993, five state-appointed administrators have run the city schools, four of them last year alone. That turnover has contributed to the view that the takeover, which the state required as a condition of a $20 million bailout for the district, has yet to yield significant dividends.

"We know from school reform that people at the school site need to improve their skills in order to improve teaching and learning," said Priscilla Wohlstetter, an education professor at the University of Southern California who has worked with several Compton schools. But "the state administrators were not able to leave a legacy behind them of what they taught schools how to do."

Mr. Whitmore, who himself ran the district for four months last year, argues that the department is finally on the right course since November's appointment of Randolph E. Ward, a well-regarded administrator from the nearby Long Beach schools.

"He's brought a real fresh attitude," Mr. Whitmore said. "We're finally seeing the curve swing back up."

But to many critics, any such swing may be too little, too late.

"All they've done is shuffle papers and shuffle people around," said Saul E. Lankster, the president of the local board of trustees. The board has had only advisory powers since the takeover, and it lost a court bid this year to wrest back control.

Under the original version of the Assembly bill that passed last week, the local board would have regained its authority in July of this year. The bill's author is Carl Washington, a freshman Democratic assemblyman who represents Compton.

That date was dropped as lawmakers revised the bill, which they approved by a vote of 73-3. Instead, lawmakers spelled out a new process for restoring control to the local board.

Agency Would Take Reins

The amended bill retains the state-appointed administrator as supervisor of the district's day-to-day affairs. But it transfers significant authority to the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, an independent state agency that provides technical guidance to troubled school systems. The assistance team's board of directors includes a representative from the education department, but is otherwise evenly divided between county and local school district superintendents.

The bill requires the assistance team to develop five "recovery plans" for the district by July 1, 1998, in the areas of instruction, finance, facilities, personnel, and community relations. The agency would then review the district's progress every six months, and determine when the local board can regain authority over particular areas of district operations.

The legislation calls for that transfer to take place by July 1, 2000. If the state assistance team concludes that the system has failed to make enough progess, however, the education department would regain its current power over the district's fate.

Back in Compton, Mr. Ward said the activity in Sacramento has made his job harder as he tries to recruit new principals and administrators. But he said he is trying not to be distracted by events in the capital.

"I'm not here for the state; I'm here for the community," he said. "My biggest frustration is the realization that it will take time to fix what occurred over decades, and I would like to do it in a year."

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