COMPTON — She totes a Bible, quotes from Scripture and has been known to hum gospel tunes during tense business meetings. But if teachers in this city's long-embattled school district view board member Bernice Woods as a spiritual leader, it is as much because she supports their drive for higher salaries.
When the Compton Education Assn. launched a strike recently, the hefty and hobbling 62-year-old Woods put aside her aluminum cane long enough to struggle onto a Gonzales Park picnic table and address a cheering union rally. A few weeks before, she engaged in a caustic shouting match with a board colleague who questioned whether she really cared about the teachers--currently the lowest paid in Los Angeles County--or was just latching onto a popular issue.
"Teachers do respect Mrs. Woods," said Wiley Jones, executive director of the union. "She appears to be honest and up front with teachers. I think that respect has been there for years."
Others dispute Woods' sincerity and accuse her of being little more than an obstructionist during much of her decade in office; someone who has often seemed motivated by self-interest alone. They charge that her academic credentials are, at best, misleading, and her actions inconsistent with the cause of education. And rather than search for constructive ways to solve the district's many problems, they contend, Woods' open dislike of Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough leads her to play the spoiler.
"She doesn't really care about teachers," said Sinetta Trimble Farley, a former trustee who served with Woods in the early 1980s. "Mrs. Woods is an opportunist. . . . To me, Mrs. Woods is there for her own personal benefit and not for the benefit of children."
Woods scoffed at that: "My record speaks for itself."
But critics contend that Woods proved their point in June by filing an unprecedented workers compensation case against the Compton Unified School District, seeking lifetime medical benefits partly due to psychological stress allegedly applied by Kimbrough.
Woods has disagreed with Kimbrough's administration since the first day he was hired in 1982. But she has been consistently outvoted by a 4-3 majority. That frustration, Woods contends, has aggravated a back, hip and knee injury she suffered on March 27, 1984, when she tumbled down a few steps while leaving the district board room. Now, she believes that Kimbrough is out to harass and embarrass her so she won't run for reelection next year.
"When you've been in a community, you've worked in a community, you've tried to make a community better, and people outright try to smear your name, that's stressful in itself," Woods said last week. "I just want (Kimbrough) to stop it."
Woods said she filed the workers compensation claim because it was necessary. "I'm not interested just in myself," she said. "If I'm going to have to go to the doctor all the time, I need (money for) medical care."
Rebecca Baumann, director of governmental relations for the California School Boards Assn., said recently that Woods' stress case is the first her organization has ever encountered. Since there are 1,073 other school boards in the state, many with appointed superintendents occasionally in conflict with one or more of their elected bosses, Woods' case could have significant ramifications.
"It would certainly set a precedent so far as we're aware," Baumann said. "Virtually all school board members during various periods of time are under stress. At what point is there a legitimate injury?"
As early as next week, workers compensation Judge Maurice J. Carey could answer that question when he delivers a ruling in Woods' case. The matter isn't likely to end there because either side can seek to have Carey's decision reversed by the state Workers Compensation Appeals Board.
But testimony from half a dozen witnesses in the workers compensation case has already underscored the deep divisions between not only Woods and Kimbrough, but between Woods and other Compton board members as well. And Woods, one of Compton's most visible public officials, has acknowledged under oath that she has no proof of many of the credentials she claims in her resume.
John C. Martin, an attorney defending the school district, contends that the information Woods put on her official resume indicates that she can't be trusted to tell the truth as to her medical condition. "A great number of the statements in this resume," the lawyer charged, "are false."
According to testimony in the case, Woods' resume states that she:
- Graduated from Los Angeles' Jordan High School. Martin presented evidence that the school has no record of her attendance. Woods said she received a diploma that she cannot find.
- Attended East Los Angeles Junior College. Martin showed that she took one course in health education and received a D. Woods agreed.