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He Shakes Sacramento's Branches for New Schools : Moorpark: Supt. Tom Duffy's latest coup was getting $14 million to build Mesa Verde. Some wonder if the master of bureaucracy is selling curriculum and teachers short.

October 24, 1994|SCOTT HADLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He is Moorpark's man in Sacramento. Not so much a wheeler-dealer, but an insider who knows the rules when it comes to finding money for his schools.

In these times of huge state budget deficits, Moorpark School Supt. Tom Duffy, 46, has pulled more than $55 million out of Sacramento to help pay for seven of his district's nine schools.

The latest coup was $14 million delivered for the construction of what many parents and school officials are calling the crown jewel of the district, Mesa Verde Middle School.

Perched on a ridgeline, the newly opened school boasts some of the best views in the city. Its 20-acre lot alone cost $6.5 million. The state paid for everything--for the land and the construction.

Yet, the degree of Duffy's success is difficult to gauge precisely, because no other local district grew as quickly as Moorpark during the 1980s boom, said Ken Prosser, business services director for the county schools office. And growth is the most important factor in securing state construction money.

Only Oak Park came close to Moorpark's fivefold student increase in recent years, Prosser said. But because Oak Park voters approved a tax hike for school construction, that district never had to depend on state funding.

"If you're just looking at a dollars-and-cents comparison, it isn't going to mean much," Prosser said. "Every school district is different--different sizes and different growth rates. But if you start calling around, not just locally but statewide, and ask people who they think is the most knowledgeable about state financing, I bet they'll mention Tom Duffy's name."

For a decade, Moorpark was one of the state's fastest-growing cities. In 1988, Duffy's first year as superintendent, school enrollment surged by 24%. Although the district is still relatively small with 6,100 students, the early growth helped Moorpark qualify for state funding--and that bolstered Duffy's stature.

"Tom Duffy has a statewide reputation," said Alicia Cruz, school district planning director in Poway near San Diego.

The Poway district has grown nearly as fast as Moorpark's. But Cruz said her district, which is five times as large as Moorpark's, received only about twice as much state construction money over the last six years.

"Tom understands the very complex process of state financing," she said. "He knows the right people, and he's willing to help other districts. I've been to several workshops that he has conducted. I think he's a mentor for all of us."

Although the Moorpark district receives some money from fees charged for each new house, it has relied on the state to pay for new schools partly because local voters rejected a $25.5-million bond issue in 1990.

To qualify, the district has had to show that enrollment is overtaking classroom space. Once it qualifies, the district enters a complex application process laid out in state law. A study done by Price Waterhouse of that process showed 54 steps through four separate state agencies.

"When you have a growth spurt like Moorpark did, you have to refocus your attention as superintendent," said Shirley Carpenter, superintendent of the Pleasant Valley school district in Camarillo. "You need to be up there in Sacramento or have someone up there for you to dog these requests, or you won't get the money."

Duffy said he travels to Sacramento about once a month, pulling the levers of the state funding apparatus. For that, Duffy has sometimes been criticized by school board members for being out of the district too much.

Board member Clint Harper has questioned Duffy's frequent trips to the state capital, but he does not complain much because of the results.

"I don't know of any other district in the county that has been able to get the kind of consistent funding that we have had for new site development," Harper said. "Quite frankly, we are in awe of his ability to get state funding."

Board members have also wondered aloud about whether Duffy's focus on state financing detracts from his support of teachers and an innovative curriculum for students--the true business of a school district.

"I would say curriculum is not his primary interest," Harper said.

Richard Gillis, president of the Moorpark teachers union, declined to comment on Duffy because teachers are in protracted contract negotiations. But Gillis has previously criticized Duffy for finding construction money but not coming through for teachers, who have gone four years without a raise.

Other critics have accused Duffy of manipulating the school board.

"I think Tom Duffy is very controlling," said Eloise Brown, a former City Council member who worked for years as a liaison between the council and the school board. "He's an individual who feels his decisions are more valid than ones the board might make."

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