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3 Emerge as Front-Runners for School Superintendent : Education: Each of the potential successors to interim chief Stanley G. Oswalt belongs to a minority group. Ethnicity has been an issue in the current administration.


COMPTON — State education officials have selected three front-runners for the job of running the financially strapped Compton Unified School District, which is under state control, sources close to the selection process said.

Each of the three is a member of a minority group and has experience as a school district superintendent, the sources said.

The front-runners are: Fernando R. Elizondo, an education consultant who formerly headed the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera; McKinley M. Nash, an executive with the Assn. of California School Administrators, and Richard P. Mesa, superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, sources said.

State officials would not confirm the identities of the three.

Compton Unified had to surrender control to a state administrator as a condition for receiving an emergency $10.5-million state loan. The state appointed retired Supt. Stanley G. Oswalt as interim state administrator in July.

The decision on a long-term administrator will be made by William D. Dawson, the acting state schools superintendent. When he returns next week from vacation, Dawson will review the three choices, who were among 30 applicants screened by a panel of state education administrators. Dawson is not bound to pick from the list.

The front-runners "have been or are superintendents in California schools," said state Assistant Supt. Patrick Keegan, who declined to name specific applicants. "All were superintendents in relatively large school districts. Most have been superintendents in districts that have diverse ethnic populations.

"There was clearly an ethnic diversity in the group that we interviewed, including African-Americans, Latinos and Anglos."

Ethnicity has emerged as an issue in Compton during the tenure of interim administrator Oswalt.

One school board member accused him of racism after Oswalt, who is Anglo, hired three Anglo consultants to work part time. At the same meeting, Oswalt authorized layoffs of teachers and administrators, most of whom are minorities.

A majority of the district's employees are minorities. The student population is about 28,000 is 57% Latino, 41% African-American and 2% other ethnicities.

In response to the criticism, Oswalt pledged to seek the best employees possible, saying that minority applicants will get full consideration.

Of the three leading candidates to succeed Oswalt, one is Latino, one is African-American, and the other is Latino and African-American.

Elizondo, the Latino, headed the El Rancho Unified School District from January, 1991, through June, 1992. He left the school district for undisclosed personal reasons with two years remaining on his contract, El Rancho officials said.

He has since worked as an educational consultant in the Bay Area. Elizondo, who has a doctorate in education from USC, speaks Spanish, which could help in Compton, where many Latino students speak limited English.

Before going to El Rancho, Elizondo, 50, was superintendent at Parlier Unified, a rural, mostly Latino school system of about 2,500 students in Fresno County.

"I've worked for eight superintendents in 20 years and he is one of the top ones," said Jeannette Johnson, an assistant superintendent in the Parlier school system. "He was very organized, progressive, student-oriented. He was a motivator, and he was particular about how the schools looked. . . I know he'd give it 100% wherever he went."

Nash, 60, who is African-American, is currently an executive with the California Assn. of School Administrators.

Nash's job is to act as a trouble-shooter or adviser for school administrators and districts. He could, for example, be called in to help a school system serve a wave of new immigrants attending a district's schools or review negotiation techniques in a district with poor labor relations, said Marilyn Reinhardt, personnel director for the administrators association.

In Compton, programs for recent Latino immigrants have come under criticism, and employees are angry over impending layoffs and threatened salary reductions.

Nash served as superintendent of Centinela Valley Union High School District in Lawndale from 1984 to 1990. The board fired him for undisclosed reasons in July, 1990, with three years remaining on his contract. Two board members later accused Nash of helping to instigate a student demonstration to protest alleged racism. Nash denied any involvement in the protest.

The school district sued Nash for allegedly removing documents from the district, and Nash sued the district for breach of contract. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Nash to return the documents, and the breach-of-contract lawsuit was settled out of court for $150,000, said Mildred Collins, attorney for the school district.

Mesa has worked mostly in central and Northern California, but has direct experience with a crisis reminiscent of Compton's struggles.

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