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Better Test Scores May Be Price of School District Bailout : Education: Assemblyman Murray's bill would have the state take over academic as well as financial operations as a condition of a loan.

April 04, 1993|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COMPTON — A local assemblyman is seeking emergency legislation to bail out the financially strapped Compton school system, but the state aid would come at a price.

The legislation also would direct the state to take control of the district's academic operations until student achievement improves significantly.

If approved, the bailout package--which could top $18 million--would be the first in California to tie emergency funding to academic achievement. The author of the bill, Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), tried unsuccessfully last year to push through a state takeover of the Compton Unified School District.

Last fall, district officials vehemently fought Murray's effort. This time, their opposition is tempered with the knowledge that the school district will not meet its payroll in May without financial help.

Murray, who represents parts of Compton, said he also proposed an academic takeover because the district has failed to educate its students properly. Student test scores in the Compton district are among the worst in the state.

Under existing law, a state-appointed administrator would take over Compton schools if the emergency loan is larger than 6%--about $7.4 million--of the school system's budget. The state administrator could run an indebted school district for one to 10 years, the maximum term of an emergency loan. The administrator, who functions like a local education czar, would have authority over all district departments, from who sweeps the halls to what kind of reading test third-graders take.

The administrator could impose stringent austerity measures. In the Richmond Unified School District in Northern California, for example, the administrator demanded 9% pay cuts for all district employees.

The administrator is supposed to relinquish day-to-day control when a school system becomes financially sound.

Murray's bill would expand the state's mission in Compton. "In addition to straightening out the fiscal problems, the state will also be directed to straighten out academic problems," Murray said.

His bill would require a state takeover, regardless of the size of the loan, for a minimum of three years. An administrator would serve additional two-year terms "until the Compton Unified School District has full educational and fiscal recovery," according to Murray's bill.

The legislation does not define "full educational and fiscal recovery." State education officials would have the job of working out those details, Murray said.

Compton school board President Kelvin Filer said the district needs the money, but he is against linking a state takeover to student achievement.

"I'm hoping that part of the legislation doesn't survive," Filer said. He added that he would ask the school board to direct the district's Sacramento lobbyist to oppose the offending portions of Murray's bill.

"I don't think we need to have the carrot of financial assistance held before us in order to put forward our best efforts to establish academic progress," Filer said. "I don't care if we didn't have a dollar. We should always be doing our best on the academic side."

Compton Unified has complied with recent legislation directing the district to seek assistance from the county education office. County analysts are helping the district scrutinize its education programs and improve its accounting methods.

"The county is there to oversee what kind of academic progress we're making," Filer said. "I fully expect that you're going to see academic progress. The reason I say that is that I sense the enthusiasm of the teachers and administration in dealing with this problem."

County analysts are preparing a list of recommendations for the school district, county officials said.

But Murray said he remains unconvinced that the district can improve without increased outside help. His efforts nearly resulted in an earlier state takeover of Compton schools. Last September, only Gov. Pete Wilson's veto spared the district from becoming the first California school system ever taken over for academic failings. At the time, Wilson warned the district that he would consider signing similar legislation in the future if the school system did not improve.

"I have seen no indication that the instruction received by the children has improved," Murray said. "They cannot even manage money. Test results and other indicators of academic performance show that they are also incapable of managing that without help from the outside."

The governor has not taken a position on either the Murray bill or the bailout itself, spokeswoman Cindy Katz said.

Margie Garrett, president of the Compton teachers union, said the district must improve its academic program, but tying the bailout to academic achievement would be unfair. She said the district should consider asking another legislator to sponsor the bailout.

Hundreds of parents and employees fought last fall to prevent a takeover that now seems unavoidable.

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