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Troubled District Picks One of Its Own to Lead It Out of Budget Crisis : Schools: New Supt. Darline P. Robles has widespread popular support but limited experience, particularly in finances.

February 20, 1992|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Montebello Unified's nationwide search for a superintendent has ended in its own back yard with the selection of popular Acting Supt. Darline P. Robles, who must now steer the school system clear of potential bankruptcy.

The school board's unanimous choice of Robles was a surprise even to many supporters. They had wondered whether Robles' limited experience would prompt the board to turn elsewhere for a leader of one of the state's most financially troubled school districts. Robles has never been a superintendent or worked for another school system.

But supporters point to her reputation for integrity and determination and her rapport with employees as qualities that the state's 12th largest district needs more than anything else.

"A new superintendent would take a year to learn the ins and outs of this district," board member Frank Serrano told a room packed with more than 100 employees and parents. "You and I don't have a year to wait."

Robles, a local native whose son graduated from a school in the district, called the appointment a "dream come true." Her lips trembled and she dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief as board members and friends took the podium to praise and congratulate her.

"For me, it's an honor and a privilege to serve the students, parents and staff of this community," she said in remarks briefer than the minute-long ovation she received. "That's all I have to say before I break down and cry again," she concluded.

The 42-year-old administrator has run the district since July, when she succeeded the retiring John Cook. Her brief tenure has included some of the most trying moments in district history.

"None of the other applicants has indicated they had experience guiding a district from the verge of bankruptcy," Serrano said.

Since June, the district has laid off about 200 employees, most of them teachers, and slashed the budget by $28 million--about 22%. The school system trimmed music and art programs and health services, cut salaries, made classroom teachers out of its elementary librarians and increased class size. Only a June bond sale allowed the district to meet its summer payroll.

The district faces cuts for next school year of about $12 million. More layoffs could affect all categories of employees. Because of contract protections, the district has only until March to decide which administrators and teachers may lose their jobs.

"She knew when she walked in there that we were in a financial dilemma. I didn't have to convince her," said Acting Business Manager Glenn Sheppard, who had to suggest cuts for Robles to bring to the board. "She assumed a proactive, supportive role in making sure the district gets through this financial dilemma. She's taken hard, tough positions."

Robles has plunged the budget knife into every department and program without alienating most employees and parents.

Kathy Klein, president of the teacher's union, recommended her, as did Carol Seare, immediate past president of the union for non-teaching employees. They and others stressed her willingness to communicate, her honesty and an open-door policy that makes her accessible to all employees. She visited every school to explain the need for the budget cuts and to discuss how to cope with the changes.

"I told her, for you, I would walk through the wall; for other people, not necessarily," said Acting Assistant Supt. Faustino Ledesma, who was once Robles' supervisor.

The looming financial crisis muted Robles' celebration reception. Even the cake was donated, lest officials be accused of wasting money. Even so, the mood in the boardroom was brighter than at any time in the last year. The audience cheered every vote to confirm Robles, and supporters brought a guitar and lyric sheets to sing her a victory song. They even cheered the announcement of her contract terms: $100,000 a year for three years.

Much of her popularity has been built through years of service with the district. She joined the school system as a teacher in 1973 and later coordinated district bilingual programs before serving as principal at an elementary school and an intermediate school.

She became the assistant superintendent for pupil and community services in 1988. In that position she supervised special education and district programs for gifted children and potential dropouts. She oversaw health services, public relations and district security, and dealt with classroom crowding and district boundary changes.

Her background never included balancing a district budget, however. She served as an administrator during a time when the school system was spending itself into insolvency. Some insiders wondered whether being part of that bureaucracy could or should be held against her.

One administrator, speaking off the record, said Robles was not to blame for the overspending mentality. "There were naysayers, and Robles was among them," he said. "She couldn't believe where the money was going to come from. She was concerned. She was very skeptical."

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