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Schools Superintendent Retires From Battle for County's Youth

June 01, 1993|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The year was 1955. The Iron Curtain was up. The Cold War was on. In Japan, a young investigator for U.S. Army counterintelligence was at a crossroads: He could return home to a plain, unexciting job as a schoolteacher or join the CIA and lead a glamorous, globe-trotting existence.

Easy decision. "There was not much of a question about it," James Cowan said.

If Cowan had one life to give for his country, it would be as an educator. While the United States fought the Cold War without him, Cowan was engaged in conflicts of his own. By 1969, he had risen to the position of Ventura County superintendent of schools, skirmishing with California bureaucrats and crossing swords with bean counters and number crunchers.

"That was all part of the job," Cowan said, "but being an advocate for young people made it worth fighting all those battles."

Now the Cold War is over and, coincidentally, so is Cowan's career. After 24 years as superintendent, Cowan, 61, is retiring July 1, 16 months before his elected term expires. While schools continue to tackle shrinking budgets and campus violence, Cowan will be going . . . fishing.

"The job has not always been rosy," Cowan said. "I regret not being able to generate more revenue for our local schools."

Cowan isn't the only area superintendent to bail out in the last few months. Frustration over endless budget cuts reportedly caused four district superintendents to quit earlier this year. Their decisions had an influence on Cowan.

"As I saw others retiring, I thought it might not be such a bad idea," he said. "I want to leave while I'm healthy."

Cowan is passing the torch to a younger man. Upon his recommendation, the county Board of Education has selected his assistant superintendent, Charles Weis, 42, to fill out the remainder of his term.

Weis, who intends to run for the office in 1994, lauded his boss. "For a county of our size," Weis said, "he's provided more services and support for schools than much larger counties have."

Cowan himself was appointed interim superintendent. In 1969, the county Board of Supervisors chose him to complete the term of Dean Triggs, who was ill. Running unopposed, he was elected to the office in 1970. Winning six straight four-year terms for the job that now pays $110,000, Cowan has never been opposed. Why?

"Look at my accomplishments," Cowan said bluntly.

During his two dozen years as superintendent, Cowan's office grew from 90 to 450 employees, including more than 200 teachers. It built six special-education schools, established a countywide occupational-education program serving 1,200 students, created the state's first federally funded teacher-resource center, initiated the county's Science Fair and acquired a 20-acre site at the Camarillo Airport to house various programs.

"He saw where the needs were and encouraged us to fill those needs," Weis said.

As superintendent, Cowan reports to the five-member Board of Education, which approves budgets and policies. Board President Doylenne Johnson, who has known Cowan for 17 years, praised his managerial style, saying he "found people who do an excellent job and allowed them to do it."

Cowan, who refers to himself as a "local yokel," attended Ventura High School in the late 1940s and was "a fairly average student," earning A's and Bs. The future superintendent wasn't the class cutup and never was sent to the principal's office, he said. As a teen-ager, he taught Sunday school at church.

A 6-footer, Cowan was a substitute guard on the 1948-49 undefeated Ventura High basketball team that won Southern California's small-school title. He also played at Ventura College, developing his skills and winning a scholarship to Whittier College. A starter at Whittier, he once scored 24 points in a playoff game, hitting nine of 11 shots from the field.

Drafted into the Army after graduating Whittier in 1953, just after the Korean War, Cowan was tabbed for intelligence duty in Tokyo. Far from emulating James Bond, he interrogated prisoners of war. Although he was recruited by the CIA when his tour of duty ended in 1955, Cowan wanted to go home and launch his teaching career.

After working as a gym and math teacher and junior varsity basketball coach for a few years, Cowan moved into administration as dean of boys at Buena High. His next steps: director of secondary education for the county superintendent, then assistant superintendent under Dean Triggs.

"I didn't plan to get into administration," Cowan said. "It just worked out that way."

With an annual budget of $26 million, the superintendent's office is responsible for monitoring budgets for the county's 20 school districts, issuing checks to 16,000 school employees, managing several school sites and running educational programs for handicapped students, children of migrant workers and children in the Juvenile Court system.

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