Political cronyism and mismanagement have sent the Compton Unified School District into an academic and financial tailspin in which the desires of adults running its schools have regularly taken precedence over the needs of students, a county report concluded Tuesday.
In a harshly worded document that marked the latest in a long series of blows to the district, the Los Angeles County Office of Education said the Compton school system is crippled by a lack of leadership.
It also said that school board members "are often more intent on obtaining employment for relatives and friends than making decisions in the best interests of children."
The report, presented at a special school board meeting, was the product of a state bill directing the county education office to examine the district's programs and operations. County education analysts said the three-month probe uncovered problems in almost every facet of the school system, from academic instruction to the upkeep of the classrooms.
For example, analysts noted, the district never has developed a consistent philosophy for bilingual education, even though the student population is 57% Latino. That lack of focus, the report added, is only an example of the overall confusion that "permeates the organization."
"Available resources are distributed based on personal relationships, not on district priorities," county officials said in the report. "Nepotism and cronyism is a problem."
District politics regularly influences who gets promotions and coveted assignments, and some teachers and administrators have been assigned to jobs for which they are not qualified, county officials said.
Even the upkeep and furnishings of buildings favor adults over children, the county investigation found: While district offices are well kept and comfortable, exposed wiring, collapsed ceilings, broken windows and a lack of heat are ongoing problems in classrooms.
The critical study is the latest of several blows to the Compton school system. Earlier this year, the district voted to ask for an emergency loan to keep schools operating until next fall, a move likely to put the district's fiscal operations under control of a state-appointed administrator.
An emergency proposal to provide up to $16.5 million to bail out the district is working its way through the Legislature. Auditors concluded that the district will spend several million dollars more than it will receive this school year.
Auditors said several errors by district officials contributed to the financial crisis. For example, the district failed to pay millions of dollars owed to the county education office for services that the county provided for mentally handicapped students.
But the district has been under pressure to make academic improvements as well. Compton students' achievement test scores traditionally rank among the lowest in the state.
Last September, only Gov. Pete Wilson's veto spared the district from becoming the first in California taken over for academic deficiencies. The governor warned, however, that he would consider signing similar legislation if the school system did not improve.
The legislation calling for the county report was was authored by Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), a longtime critic of the district's educational programs who also sponsored the emergency bailout bill.
Some district employees and parents in the audience of 250 at the board meeting applauded as the report was read aloud, and school board members accepted the document soberly.
The trustees said they would try to follow the county's recommendations, which included immediate retraining of teachers and principals, greater district focus on academic achievement and more effective parent involvement. The report also advised the district to put an end to nepotism.
Board member John Steward, himself a critic of district operations, faulted only the tone of the document, which he said was unnecessarily harsh, given the district's eagerness to improve.
But his request that the report be revised to reflect the district's good attitude was rebuffed by County Schools Supt. Stuart Gothold. "The written statement is important because it has to underscore the sense of urgency," Gothold said to applause. "We have to set deadlines. We have to have accountability."
Board member Amen Rahh noted that outsiders do not always know what's best. But he also praised the report.
"It's just like giving a baby a bath," Rahh said. "They cry but it's good for them."