ORANGE — When new Orange Unified School District Supt. Norman C. Guith entered his office for the first time, one of the first things he did was post a green-and-yellow sign behind his desk that bore a two-word slogan: "Children Allowed."
The sign, Guith said, was not posted to suggest that children in the Orange Unified district will be allowed to do as they please. It is, rather, a reminder to himself and all who enter his office that children should be allowed to learn.
"We didn't build these schools to give teachers a place to have a job in," Guith said. "We built them for children to learn in."
Like any concerned school administrator, Guith (pronounced \o7 gooth\f7 ) says children are first on his agenda. But to fulfill his mission to provide students with the best education possible, Guith, who resigned as superintendent of the once-troubled Alvord Unified School District in Riverside to take his new post, first must overcome significant obstacles as new head of the still-troubled Orange Unified School District.
In fact, the legacy Guith inherits is so checkered that, when the school board officially named him superintendent July 2, board member Russell Barrios quipped that he had given Guith "as much detail as possible on the district, and he still decided to take the job."
For nearly a decade, the district has been plagued by scandal, fiscal problems and union disputes. The 1986-87 Orange County Grand Jury accused four members of the district's school board of "willful misconduct in office" for failing to curb an alleged bid-rigging scandal that led to criminal charges against the district's maintenance supervisor and two contractors.
Although an almost entirely new school board has been elected, the district's problems continue. District officials have predicted a $1.2-million budget shortfall for the 1990-91 school year, and two independent auditors issued critical reports predicting that the district could be bankrupt in five years unless the teachers union's lucrative health-care plan is drastically scaled back.
Ongoing contract negotiations and budget gaps are just two of the sticky issues Guith will face as Orange Unified's new chief executive, but they will probably not be his toughest challenges. For Guith, the biggest challenge may simply be changing the image of a district that has been dogged by critics for years.
It's a challenge that Guith said doesn't faze him. Most of the district's problems, he said, have been overstated.
"People tend to emphasize problems," Guith said in an interview on his first day on the job. "This district may have a few big problems, but it has more big strengths than problems. We have to emphasize the strengths and resolve the problems."
A lanky, ebullient father of eight, Guith, 50, said his track record, temperament and managerial style--which he said alternates between a hands-on approach and giving ample elbow room to his "cabinet" of chief personnel--have contributed to his successful history as a school administrator. His peers agree.
"Alvord school district for 20-plus years had lots of tension, lots of turmoil, lots of negative headlines in the paper," said Riverside County Supt. of Schools Dale S. Holmes. "One of the things Dr. Guith did to change that was put in place an excellent administrative team. He's not afraid to surround himself with excellent people."
Guith's track record impressed Orange Unified school board members so much that they offered him a three-year contract with an annual salary of $109,000. Former Supt. John Ikerd earned $87,000 a year.
"It's more money (than in Alvord)," Guith said. "But I'm not going to apologize for the salary. I'll earn those extra funds."
Guith said his immediate plans for Orange Unified are to "find out what the district needs" through meetings with principals, parents, teachers, students, board members and key officials of the cities the district encompasses (Orange and parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Villa Park). He pledged to visit each of the approximately 1,200 classrooms in the district in the first few months of the school year.
It's an approach that has become a sort of trademark for Guith, former colleagues said. And while Orange Unified has 10,000 more students than Alvord Unified and an annual budget of $100 million, current and former co-workers said Guith's management approach should prove just as effective in Orange as in Riverside.
"I think he's ideal for the situation in Orange. I really do," said Dorothy Irwin, president of Alvord Unified's school board. "He's earned himself a reputation, more or less, as a trouble-shooter."
Irwin said Guith's accomplishments in Alvord included overseeing construction of a school for 400 students in a scant five months and upgrading existing schools which, she said, "people had come from all over" to see. She also credited Guith with playing a major role in settling contract disputes with district employees.