WEST COVINA — Two of the top three administrators in the West Covina Unified School District have been temporarily relieved of their duties after disclosures that the district is expected to end the school year at least $2.7 million in debt.
"I feel betrayed by the administration," said Elba Comeau, a board member since 1983. "All I keep saying is why? Why didn't they come to us and say, 'We're in dire straits'?"
Last week, the board put Jimmie L. Duncan, assistant superintendent for business services since 1980, on administrative leave with pay "due to the current financial situation," said Kathleen J. Jones, board president.
The board also placed Donald F. Todd, district superintendent since 1976, on administrative leave with pay "until the board clarifies his medical condition," Jones said. Todd, 54, had requested the leave of absence, citing medical problems. He is scheduled to retire June 30.
Comeau said the board was told in February of potential financial difficulties and did not learn of the magnitude of the problem until the end of April. Until then, the board was reassured by administrators that the financial outlook was secure, she said. "We depend on our administrators. We are at their mercy.
"And then," Comeau said, "when you find that you're in a situation like this, No. 1, you're devastated. No. 2 , how did we get here? Why didn't we know sooner?"
At the same meeting, the board appointed Jane Gawronski, assistant superintendent of educational programs and services for the Walnut Valley Unified School District, as its new superintendent. On July 1, Gawronski will become the first woman to serve as superintendent, at an annual salary of $70,000.
Billy J. Barnes, assistant superintendent for educational services since 1980, was appointed acting superintendent for the district until June 30.
Cost Overruns Cited
Todd could not be reached for comment. Duncan, 44, who was first employed by the district in 1965 as a music teacher, said his attorney has advised him not to comment.
Administrators have said that cost overruns and inflated estimates of projected revenues caused the deficit. Although district officials at first were afraid that classes might have to be closed early, they are confident now that an emergency loan can be obtained from the state to keep schools open until June 18.
Some board members blame administrators for not supplying adequate information to the board about potential budget problems.
"We didn't have enough information from the financial part of the (staff)," said Dorothy C. (Dottie) Grinstead, who has served on the board since 1983.
"We probably relied too heavily on administration, but what choice do you have?" she said. "If you don't have trust in the people who are trained in these jobs, then what do you do?"
Comeau said the only "warning we got was gossip." She said staff members, worried about sidestepping their bosses, tried to talk to other people. "When we picked up on it, then we went to the administration, and time and time again, we were assured that everything would work out, everything would be fine.
"I'm not really blaming them," she added. "The blame rests on me. I was remiss in my job for not asking or being more demanding for information.
"I should not have given (administrators) this blind faith that whatever they say is correct," she said.
To ensure that schools remain open, the board is seeking an emergency loan from the state to finance what is predicted to be a deficit of between $2.7 million and $3.5 million when the fiscal year ends June 30. The current budget for the system, which serves 8,000 students, is $27 million.
Aides to state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), who represents West Covina, said he is working with the district to help obtain the needed funds.
'Never Happen Again'
"It is difficult to understand how the problem happened," a prepared statement from Campbell said. "We must ensure that it will never happen again."
Thomas A. Burns, staff director for the joint legislative budget committee, of which Campbell is chairman, said an audit must be completed to determine exactly how much the district will need.
Campbell is expected to add an amendment to an existing bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), which seeks an emergency loan of $500,000 for the Val Verde Elementary School District. The bill has been approved by the Senate and is awaiting action in the Assembly.
"Conceivably, we can have it on the governor's desk by June 1, but it's going to be real, real tough to do that," Burns said.