The Compton district—the first and only California school system to be taken over by the state for both academic and financial shortcomings—will regain local control of its schools in December.
“I told the folks that I would be the last state administrator,” said Randolph E. Ward, who has run the district for the state. “I’m a man of my word. I worked myself out of a job.”
The state started taking steps to relinquish control of the district to the local elected board earlier this month, after a state review showed that Compton had met its goals in five areas: community relations, personnel, facilities, finance, and student achievement. Compton also finished repaying its $19.6 million state loan this summer. (“‘Comeback’ From State Control Means Solvency for Compton,” Jan. 31, 2001.)
But the essential factor for Compton to resume leadership over its schools was the selection of a highly regarded superintendent. Jesse L. Gonzales, the superintendent in Las Cruces, N.M., for the past 12 years, started as the district’s chief educator last month.
“That was the nail,” Mr. Ward said of Mr. Gonzales’ unanimous selection by the board.
Doug Stone, the communications director for the California Department of Public Instruction, said the state would officially relinquish control on Dec. 11, after a three-month transition period.
Still, the state’s presence won’t disappear from the 33,000-student district. Mr. Ward will stay on as the state’s trustee, overseeing decisions to ensure that Compton does not slide back into an academic or financial crisis. A consent decree the district and the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union agreed to last year guarantees further monitoring. A severe critic of the district, the ACLU sued after the state intervention, seeking improvements in facilities and programs.
Mr. Ward acknowledged that it would be difficult for him to pull back. He has had sole control of the district for five years, with the school board serving in an advisory role.
That type of complete control was absolutely necessary to turn Compton around, said Thomas E. Henry of the Fiscal and Crisis Management Assistance Team, an agency created by the state legislature to monitor and assist school systems in meeting their financial and management obligations.
The final state review of Compton’s schools, released last week, showed enough improvement that the agency recommended giving the school board greater responsibility.
Recovery in Compton had to be tackled on all fronts simultaneously—the classrooms, the facilities, and the finances—or progress could not have been made, Mr. Henry said. The combination of absolute control, state support, and an able leader led to Compton’s improvements, he added.
“There’s a certain amount of Compton pride that has always been in the district historically,” Mr. Henry said. “For a period of time, they lost that. We have seen that they’ve regained that pride.”
Compton has also elected a new mayor to replace Omar Bradley, the city’s controversial leader and one of the district’s chief critics.
Mr. Gonzales acknowledged earlier this month that he was anxious about taking on his new challenge just as the state pulls out of the district. But, he noted that he and Mr. Ward are working collaboratively to move Compton into the next phase.
The upcoming November election of five of the district’s seven board members could complicate the transition to local control. Several school board members have been highly critical of the state takeover, and some were publicly chastised for meddling in district business after they were stripped of their power.
While acknowledging the board’s sometimes-stormy relationship with the state, Mr. Gonzales said the community and the board have been supportive of him. He’s already coped with his first crisis—a drive-by shooting outside Compton High School earlier this month.
“If the board and all of us can work together,” he said, “I think we can move forward.”
In addition to keeping Compton on track to recovery, Mr. Gonzales said he would revamp the district’s high schools, creating more Advanced Placement courses. Moreover, he said that he would likely seek board approval to ask voters to support a bond for additional renovations and construction.
While Mr. Henry said it was not too soon to call Compton a success, “the question,” he cautioned, “becomes will they be able to sustain it?”