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'Fly in Ointment' on the Job in W. Covina

December 17, 1987|ANDREA ESTEPA | Times Staff Writer

Stanley Oswalt did not come to his new job as state-appointed trustee for the West Covina Unified School District expecting to be liked.

"I'm basically a fly in the ointment here," Oswalt said. "I'm the designated bad guy."

Board and staff members agree that they were not looking forward to Oswalt's arrival last July because his job is to make sure that the district sticks to an austerity budget until it repays a $3.3 million loan from the state, a process that may take as long as five years.

"It's grim here," said Supt. Jane D. Gawronski summing up the impact of more than $3 million in cuts from the 1987-88 budget. "But if you're going to accept the strings attached. If I loaned $3.3 million to somebody, by golly, I'd want to protect my investment."

Last spring, the school board discovered that the district was facing a $2.6 million deficit caused by cost overruns and financial mismanagement. The deficit is expected to reach $3.3 million by the end of the 1987-88 school year. The Legislature granted the district an emergency loan the condition that a trustee with experience in education, management and finance be appointed to monitor district operations.

The board was somewhat resentful about this condition.

"We felt that we would take every action necessary to get the district back on sound financial footing," said Kathy Jones, who was board president until she lost her bid for reelection last month. "We didn't think he was necessary."

Oswalt, 63, had just retired after 24 years as superintendent of the Rowland Unified School District when he was appointed to his new position by state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig. He is sometimes referred to around the district as the "higher authority" because he has the power to veto or rescind any action by the school board that affects the district's financial situation.

"I guess none of us like it," said newly elected board President Joe Mount. Some of us with outside management experience feel uncomfortable with having someone sitting in your office watching your every move, but that's the price we have to pay."

Although mount dislikes having a trustee, both he and Gawronski praised Oswalt's willingness to work with the staff and board to get the district back on its feet as quickly as possible.

"This job would be hell if you were fighting everyone," Oswalt said. "I can veto any action they take, but I think that's the last thing you want to do."

To keep conflict at a minimum, Oswalt consults with Gawronski and her staff regularly. They try to reach a consensus before presenting recommendations to the board.

For example, Oswalt and Gawronski recently disagreed over the importance of retaining aides who supervise elementary school students during lunch hour.

"I became convinced that we needed them there," Gawronski said. "If we cut them, it would be a change in working conditions for the teachers and cause problems with the union." Oswalt, on the other hand, did not think the aides were essential to school operations.

"It took tense negotiations on my part with Stan to convince him that they were needed," Gawronski said. "We went down to zero hour in negotiating with him on that."

Currently, Gawronski and Oswalt are discussing a request for more custodial help. Gawronski has received complaints from principals about the need for more custodians and favors the idea. Oswalt's response to the complaints: "Tough. Make (the present system) work."

Oswalt, whose direct, outspoken manner is tempered by personal warmth and good humor, has taken a hands-on approach to a job in which the duties are largely undefined. Instead of simply reviewing budgets and reports, Oswalt spends his four-day work week in a cramped former storage room that serves as his office, helping the staff develop new administrative systems and do long-term financial planning.

"Sometimes I offer advice whether I'm asked or not," Oswalt said.

Despite their disagreements, Gawronski has found working with Oswalt to be a positive experience.

"He contributes his own expertise," Gawronski said. "For example, he has offered to do an energy audit for us to see if that's an area where we can save money . What we try to do is work with Stan as a team member."

Mount agreed that Oswalt has been cooperative. "He's not throwing his weight around and acting like a little dictator," Mount said. "He seems to have the interests of the students as a very high priority in his thinking, just as we do."

Oswalt has threatened to exercise his veto power only once. The board had been going over its list of annual memberships, trying to decide which should be renewed. The board wanted to keep its membership in the Los Angeles Music Center Education Division, which sends artists and performers to member schools for special programs.

"I felt the program was vital to the district," Jones said. "The students, teachers and principals all benefit. It's something we really wanted to keep."

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