Down on Top-Down
As the administrator charged with running the fourth school district taken over by the state of California, Henry Der possesses all the powers formerly held by the local school board and its superintendent. But he’s determined not to act that way.
Tapped by state Superintendent Delaine Eastin on Aug. 7 to run the 900-student Emery Unified School District, Mr. Der has to come up with a plan for restoring the debt-ridden district to solvency.
Under terms of a bailout bill that Gov. Gray Davis signed this summer, the district has up to 20 years to pay back $2.3 million in state loans. Until that debt is cleared, the district will have to be run by the state.
Mr. Der, a former deputy superintendent under Ms. Eastin, says one of his priorities will be to chart a new fiscal course for the three-school district that spares the classroom as much as possible. Equally important, he says, will be to avoid coming across as “the big bad state,” and instead work to build the capacity of local residents to govern their own schools.
“A top-down strategy will not succeed unless we develop, monitor, and strengthen local capacity and local involvement,” he said. “We don’t intend to stay here for 20 years.”
Sandwiched between Berkeley and Oakland in the bayside community of Emeryville, the district fell deeply in debt under former Superintendent J.L. Handy. Mr. Handy, who now faces criminal charges, had been fired in 1992 as the schools chief in Compton, Calif., amid allegations of financial mismanagement, shortly before that Southern California district was taken over by the state. (“Calif. Superintendent Leaves Second District in Disarray,” Jan. 10, 2001.)
Mr. Handy pleaded not guilty in July to two felony counts of misusing public funds stemming from allegations that he used his Emery Unified credit card on personal expenses, according to the Alameda County district attorney’s office. He also pleaded not guilty to a state conflict-of-interest charge connected to allegations that he improperly steered district grant-writing work to his girlfriend.