More than two years after conditions in Compton public schools deteriorated to the point that state officials decided to take them over, the local school board is launching a concerted effort to wrest control back from Sacramento.
A majority of the seven-member Compton school board charges that J. Jerome Harris, the state-appointed administrator who has presided over the school district since February 1994, has failed to improve the quality of education and wasted millions of dollars in unnecessary managerial expenses.
A bloc of four board members, led by two who were elected in November, plans to file a lawsuit today against Harris and state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, asserting that the state's control over the district is unconstitutional.
But Joseph R. Symkowick, a lawyer for the state education department, said the board has no legal standing to sue. He expressed doubt that control should be returned to the board. "I have seen no indications that they are ready educationally," Symkowick said.
He also said the board "displays a complete misunderstanding of the law," and argued that it has no legal standing to sue.
Board members lashed out at Harris, nationally known as a tough-love reformer, saying his style has turned off teachers and district employees and kept them from embracing his ideas.
Harris "is a brilliant educator, but his philosophy of 'my way or the highway' doesn't fit in the situation we're in," said board member Basil Kimbrew. "He's not sensitive to the people in the community."
Harris, who said he plans to leave this summer, insists that he has brought about sorely needed improvements.
"I would love to see the district returned to local control, but I have an obligation to make certain that, education-wise, these kids are better off," Harris said. "We're not where we should be, but we're better off than we've ever been educationally before.
He cited the results of the California Achievement Test, an aptitude exam used by many of the state's districts. According to his data, the number of Compton students who scored above the norm in reading, language and math skills increased, at least in small measure, each year he's been in charge.
Harris also said he has established closer teacher supervision and set up a curriculum establishing which lessons to teach each day. "The biggest constraint I'm under is the psychological thing," he said. "There's a low level of expectation that exists. Everyone seems to think there's nothing wrong with the system, but that there's something wrong with the children. I don't buy that."
Proponents of local authority received a boost this week when state Sen. Teresa P. Hughes (D-Inglewood) introduced a bill to require the state to certify by February 1997 that the district is financially solvent and to release the schools from state control. A handful of other state lawmakers have offered similar bills.
"I want to set a sunset date, so everyone realizes that this can't go on ad infinitum," Hughes said.
Compton schools face many of the same pressures today that forced them to bow to state authority in 1993: widespread poverty, rampant street violence and a student population in which only 60% show a proficiency in English in recent testing. The school district, which borrowed $20 million from the state to cover payroll and other expenses shortly before Harris was appointed, has not paid back any of the loans, according to district officials.
But school board members said that in trying to improve education despite those conditions, Harris has piled up administrative costs and has not provided enough money for textbooks and teacher pay raises.
Officials from the Compton Education Assn., the teachers union, said Harris has created an overcrowded bureaucracy and has not attracted qualified instructors to the district. About 500 of the union's 1,200 teachers have emergency credentials, and have not completed the required preparation program, a spokeswoman said.
The board has also raised questions about Harris' personal use of district funds. In a Jan. 2 memorandum, the board asked Harris for a list of personal expenses paid for with Compton Unified School District money. The board also requested information about how much has been paid to the district's legal counsel, prominent Los Angles attorney Melanie Lomax. Harris said all his expenditures have been appropriate, and accused board members of trying to oust him so that they can use the school system as a political machine.
Lomax said her firm billed the district about $479,000 last year and handled 34 cases, and won all but two.
"I'm a false issue," Lomax insisted. "What is happening here is, there's a tremendous amount of frustration among the elected board members and segments of the local community over what they regard as state occupation."