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State Renews Search for School District Administrator : Education: Richard P. Mesa changes his mind after accepting the position. Oakland board members persuaded him to stay in their troubled system.


COMPTON — State officials have resumed their search for an administrator to run the Compton school system following the surprise announcement that Oakland schools chief Richard P. Mesa has turned down the job.

Mesa had applied for and accepted the Compton post, but he changed his mind Tuesday after a show of support from community members and the Oakland school board.

The task of picking another administrator for the Compton Unified School District falls to acting state schools Supt. William D. Dawson. He hopes to make a choice within a week, said Susie Lange, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.

"This is pretty new to us as well," Lange said of Mesa's unexpected decision. "We were quite surprised.

"We'll want to do this as soon as possible. We are anxious to get the permanent person in there."

In the meantime, interim Compton schools administrator Stanley G. Oswalt will remain in charge, she said.

The Compton school district came under state control as a condition of an emergency $10.5-million state loan. The state-appointed administrator has complete authority to run the district for up to eight years or until state officials decide the school system has recovered financially.

State officials have said they also will focus on improving academic programs in the district of 28,000 students, because student test scores are among the lowest in the state.

Compton school board President Kelvin Filer said he also wants to get the long-term administrator in place as soon as possible.

"It's obviously another setback," Filer said of Mesa's decision. "I find it somewhat perplexing that someone would apply for a position, knowing everything it would entail and the consequences of accepting the position, and then change his posture."

Mesa said he assured state officials Tuesday morning that he was committed to Compton.

But by afternoon he was besieged with calls from Oakland staff and community members asking him to stay. Some of the lobbying was instigated by board member Jean Quan.

Under Mesa, "we've been able to restore credibility to the school district," Quan said. We've been able to unite the staff around an educational plan. We've made steady progress."

The school board met privately with Mesa on Monday and Tuesday and unanimously passed a resolution asking him to stay, an unexpected vote of confidence, said Mesa, who has headed the district since 1990.

At times, Mesa battled openly with board members over such issues as hiring and textbook selection. Board member Sylvester Hodges said Mesa rated only a D-minus in improving academic programs. Teacher unions criticized Mesa for failing to raise pay and said he employed too many administrators.

But even many critics granted that he had restored the district's financial stability and brought a wealth of experience in curriculum and dropout prevention. And many praised his work to improve academics, saying that his efforts were too new to show results.

Before Mesa's arrival, the district had six superintendents and three teacher strikes in 10 years.

"I think they didn't want to return to what Oakland had been in the past when confronted with the reality of my leaving," Mesa said.

"It's been a very draining experience," he added. "Whatever inconvenience I might have caused or expectations I might have violated in Compton, I apologize profoundly. It's very uncharacteristic of me not to do what I say.

"There is a part of me that is sad about not taking the opportunity in Compton. But it's an emotional decision. These are the people who I know," he said of his Oakland colleagues. "These are the kids I've been working with and the community I've become so fond of."

Mesa emerged as one of three front-runners for the Compton position after a panel of education administrators screened 30 applicants. The other two candidates on the short list are both former Southern California-area superintendents.

Fernando R. Elizondo, an education consultant, was superintendent of the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera from January, 1991, through June, 1992. McKinley M. Nash, an executive with the Assn. of California School Administrators, headed the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Lawndale from 1984 to 1990.

Dawson is not bound to pick from the short list and will consider other administrators who applied for the job, state officials said.

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