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Deficit the Top Issue in School Board Race

October 22, 1987|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

WEST COVINA — When members of the West Covina Unified School District board revealed last spring that the district had somehow fallen $2.6 million in debt, angry parents, teachers and students blamed board members for being inattentive to the district's financial problems.

At a board meeting in May, teacher Betty Joyce sternly told the five board members: "You have lost the confidence of the community that elected you."

In the Nov. 3 election, three members of the board will try to keep the seats to which they were elected four years ago. Eight parents and a former West Covina student are challenging the incumbents, with fiscal responsibility the dominant issue of the campaign.

The incumbents--board President Kathy Jones and board members Elba Comeau and Dottie Grinstead--all say they were unaware of the deficit until April because the district's administrators did not keep them apprised of costs and revenues.

They argue that the role of board members is to oversee the district's management, not to scrutinize its day-to-day operations.

The deficit, expected to total $3.3 million when the fiscal year ends on June 30, 1988, was the result of cost overruns in areas such as computer maintenance, building repairs, consulting fees and payroll and inaccurately high projections of revenue from sources such as state lottery funds, according to a management review prepared in August by the consulting firm of Wilson Riles and Associates.

The review suggested improvements in the district's accounting procedures and recommended ways the district could cut expenditures and increase revenue.

Until the district repays the $3.3 million it has borrowed from the state to cover its shortfalls for the past two fiscal years, state-appointed trustee Stanley Oswalt will oversee the district's operation.

Seven of the nine challengers have pledged that their first priority would be to help return the district to sound financial footing, so that it can repay the state without hampering the quality of education.

Some candidates have been strident in their criticism of the current board, while others simply say they have more experience in fiscal management than the incumbents.

Several of the challengers have backgrounds in accounting, law or public administration, which they say make them better qualified to remedy the district's financial problems. They argue that had they been on the board last year, they could have detected the burgeoning deficit more quickly and could have taken steps to control spending.

The incumbents have said the district has made great strides toward balancing its budget since the board hired Supt. Jane Gawronski in July. They point to the fact that the board was able to make substantial cuts in the 1987-88 budget without reducing the number of teaching positions.

With contract negotiations between the district and its certified employees--teachers and administrators--and classified personnel set to begin in February, incumbents argue that continuity on the board is important. They say that board candidates must be familiar with a wide range of educational issues, not just the budget deficit.

No One-Issue Candidates

"Anyone who is only running on a one-issue platform will find that won't carry them through the tough times," Jones said.

Jones, 41, was elected board president in 1984 after serving one term as a board member. She works for a public relations firm and has three children, two of whom graduated from Edgewood High School in West Covina and one who is a student there.

Jones said she has consistently voted to control salaries and capital expenditures in her eight years on the board. During this time, she said, student test scores have improved substantially. She said board members have demonstrated over the past five months their ability to deal with the district's fiscal problems.

"I'd been the only voice of reason on the board for a very long time," Jones said. "Now, I think the school board is a strong board, and I think the situation we've just gone through has helped strengthen the board. . . . We are working together as a team through this financial crisis."

Comeau, a 64-year-old housewife whose two children both graduated from West Covina High School, is completing her first term on the board. Before being elected to the board, Comeau said she was active in school affairs and regularly attended school board meetings for 16 years.

She is the board's representative in a statewide assembly of school boards.

Understands Frustration

Comeau said she understands the frustration of parents and teachers with the board's failure to recognize the magnitude of the district's financial problems before April. But she said voters must understand the difficulty of the task facing board members.

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