School & District Management

Calif. Superintendent Leaves Second District in Disarray

By Catherine Gewertz — January 10, 2001 3 min read
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Fresh from being fired in California’s most notorious school mismanagement scandal, the superintendent of the Compton schools was hired to lead another district. Now, eight years later, he is suspected of running that second district so deeply into red ink that it is on the verge of state takeover.

J.L. Handy was fired from the Compton Unified School District in 1992. Within a year, the state assumed control of the financially and academically failing district. Mr. Handy was hired that same year to run the 900-student Emery Unified School District, in the town of Emeryville, between Berkeley and Oakland in northern California’s East Bay area.

Now he’s resigned in Emeryville, leaving behind a budget deficit of at least $1.4 million, two investigations, and a swath of shocked and angry people. The ripples from his departure have reached the state capital, where lawmakers are readying a request for as much as $3 million in bailout funds and the state superintendent of schools is preparing to appoint an administrator to run the beleaguered district.

Only two other times have state leaders found it necessary to install such an administrator, a move that renders the local school board powerless: in Compton and in the Coachella Valley Unified district. State education officials are disturbed that the same man was at the helm in two of the three teetering districts.

“We’ve seen poor oversight and administration now for the second time by the same guy,” said Doug Stone, a state education department spokesman. “It’s an exceedingly high batting average. In both places, the kids are the big-ticket losers.”

Questions and Cutbacks

Local police and prosecutors are investigating spending patterns in the district. Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stark confirmed that Mr. Handy is a target of the probe, which he characterized as focusing on “abuse of public funds.” He said additional targets could be identified, but he declined to divulge further details of the case.

Several California newspapers have reported that investigators have been examining Mr. Handy’s alleged use of a district credit card for personal expenses, unexplained trips, and his management of bond-issue funds.

Mr. Handy could not be reached for comment.

A preliminary assessment by the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, the state’s troubleshooters for failing districts, projected that Emery-ville, with an annual budget of about $8 million, will be $1.4 million in the hole at the end of the year.

The crisis team recommended the district seek $2 million to $3 million from the state, and state Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, a Democrat from Berkeley, was drafting a bailout bill.

Meanwhile, district officials are trying to stay afloat as best they can. Interim Superintendent Laura D. Alvarenga said she had “cut back everything we could possibly cut back.” Most reductions came by transferring consulting jobs to district staff members.

“I feel very bad about the situation, but I’m very encouraged by the school community,” Ms. Alvarenga said. “I go into the classrooms, and teachers are teaching and the students are learning. In spite of it all, people go on with their business.”

Anger and Accusations

Emeryville resident Christine Mingo said that school board members failed to keep proper tabs on the superintendent.

“Many of us had been trying to tell them that something was terribly askew,” she said. “We pointed out all the money flowing through the schools, the new vehicles purchased, the landscaping that was changed twice, [while] the classrooms never received repair or renovation. But instead of asking questions, they did nothing. They just demeaned us when we tried to say it at meetings.”

Board President Gisele Wolf maintained that board members had no reason to believe anything was amiss. Once Mr. Handy was hired, test scores began rising, and the schools “were cleaned up and looking good,” she said. Yearly audits by the county department of education uncovered no problems, she said.

“We’re very upset,” Ms. Wolf said. “It’s a terrible shock. This was something none of us knew anything about. We focused on children and education. Where was the county, asleep at the wheel? We’re the whipping boys, we’re on the front lines. But it really isn’t the way it looks.”

Alameda County Schools Superintendent Sheila Jordan said her office reviewed Emery’s budget yearly and found no problem. “The books were cooked,” she said. “We’re not fraud investigators.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Calif. Superintendent Leaves Second District in Disarray

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