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District Loan, Improvement Bills Await Governor's OK : Education: The legislation on Gov. Wilson's desk authorizes another loan but requires continued state control until academic programs improve.

September 16, 1993|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COMPTON — Gov. Pete Wilson must decide by Oct. 10 whether to sign two bills that offer proposed remedies--one financial and one academic--for the struggling Compton Unified School District.

One bill would authorize an emergency $9.4-million loan--the second loan in three months--to keep the school system solvent. The other would require the state Department of Education to remain in charge of Compton Unified until the district's academic programs improve.

Both pieces of legislation were authored by Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), who represents parts of Compton. Local critics have called the legislation unnecessary and unfair.

Both measures sailed through the Legislature. The final drafts included suggestions from Democratic and Republican leaders, the governor's office and the state Department of Education.

Murray agreed to sponsor the loan legislation after auditors concluded that the district needed more state aid to stay solvent. Murray also was the author of previous legislation that provided a loan of $10.5 million to the school system in July. That loan triggered an automatic state takeover of the school system.

Murray's second bill stipulates that the state-appointed administrator must remain in Compton until the district makes significant academic strides. The school system currently has some of the lowest student test scores in the state.

The bill does not list specific academic goals, leaving them to the discretion of the state schools superintendent. Nor does the bill include a deadline for the state to return the district to the control of the elected school board. Murray said, however, that he expects the state administrator to leave Compton Unified within eight years, which is the maximum term for repaying the loans.

Both bills have the blessing of officials with the Office of Child Development and Education, which advises Wilson, said spokeswoman Cindy Katz. The state Department of Education also supports the loan and is considering supporting the other bill.

The loan is "an absolute must for the school district," said Stanley G. Oswalt, the state-appointed administrator for Compton Unified. "They'll go bankrupt, literally. They will never finish this year. There is no way you can cut $9 million more out of the budget that I know of."

The school system, which has an estimated $91.2-million budget, ended last year almost $20 million in the red, auditors said.

Proposed austerity measures remain on the bargaining table. District negotiators are asking teachers to accept a 7% pay cut and non-teachers to accept a 5% pay reduction. The district already has cut administrators' pay 7% and laid off dozens of employees.

Employee groups have questioned how well the district is using money from the first loan. Union leaders said Oswalt has brought in too many high-priced consultants and criticized his plans to increase stipends for employees who speak Spanish.

Oswalt responded that the consultants will save money in the long run by streamlining district operations. The stipends will help the district improve services to the 38% of its students who speak limited English. These programs must improve or the district could be stripped of millions in state and federal funds, he said.

Board member Amen Rahh opposes the second loan, as he did the first. Rahh conceded that the district has financial difficulties, but said it should be allowed to solve its problems without state intervention. Rahh and some community members have said that the state takeover is part of a racist conspiracy to deprive the school system and its minority employees and students of district land and money.

Assemblyman Murray said such allegations are "extremely irresponsible. Any charges or accusations of racism are scurrilous, misplaced and, I think, intended to be provocative. I am confident that Dr. Oswalt knows exactly what he is doing and needs to be done."

The new loan bill also contains rules designed to prevent financial crises in other California school systems. In general, the bill would give county schools superintendents more authority and responsibility for making sure that local districts are solvent.

The law, for example, would allow the county superintendent to order an audit of a school district. The county education office would pay for 25% of the audit; the district 75%. The county superintendent also could demand that school board members and superintendents forfeit pay for leading their districts into financial trouble.

County school chiefs who fail in their watchdog functions could have their own offices billed for some of the costs of rescuing a bankrupt school system.

Murray's other bill resurrects an earlier effort to put the state in charge of improving Compton academic programs. Murray pushed a similar bill through the Legislature last year.

Wilson vetoed the bill but warned the district that he would consider similar legislation in the future if the school system did not improve.

School board President Kelvin D. Filer said Murray's academic-mandate bill unfairly singles out Compton Unified. He also said Compton Unified and other school systems are being wrongly judged based on student test scores, which are an imperfect measure of a school system's performance.

Oswalt said he has taken no position on Murray's academic-mandate bill. Oswalt, a former superintendent, agreed to run the district until the state chooses a long-term administrator. He said his administration would need no push to improve academic programs.

"We don't need anyone to tell us to work harder," he said. "Instructional improvement is an absolute must.

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