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California and the West

Another District Probes Conduct of School Chief Compton Fired in '92

Education: J.L. Handy, superintendent in Emeryville, is the target of an audit over use of credit cards, construction funds.

September 20, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — J.L. Handy, fired in 1992 as superintendent of Compton schools amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement just before an unprecedented state takeover, is under investigation for what officials describe as a similar pattern of conduct in the Bay Area community of Emeryville, where he is school superintendent now.

In addition to an emergency audit being made by school officials, an Alameda County civil grand jury is investigating Handy's management of funds, officials said, including his credit card use and whether millions of dollars of voter-approved bond money earmarked for school construction has been used inappropriately. Key to the probe is whether several sizable contracts were put out to bid, as the law requires, officials said Tuesday.

"I will not say I don't have any suspicions of illegal behavior," Alameda County School Supt. Sheila Jordan said. "If you're not using money in a legal fashion, is that criminal? Maybe you consider it creative financing. This has become a big issue and the state is looking closely over our shoulder."

At the heart of the investigation is the 60-year-old Handy, a veteran school administrator whom critics describe as aloof and dictatorial. Supporters paint a vastly different picture: that of a hard-working, thoughtful educator who at worst has made some errors in judgment.

Handy did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

"He's a very bright man with a lot of charisma," Jordan said. "But he plays things very close to the vest."

This summer, Alameda County school officials seized financial control when they learned that the tiny Emery Unified School District--one of 18 systems in its jurisdiction--was $900,000 in debt and did not have enough money to pay teachers or provide for its 900 students.

As many cash-strapped teachers were forced to purchase their own supplies, Handy spent an estimated $9,000 to take a class at Harvard University, even after a county-imposed financial advisor rejected the expenditure, Jordan said.

Yet as teachers called for his firing, the Emeryville school board recently voted to extend Handy's contract for another three years and Alameda County officials say they are considering the option of buying out his contract, including his $115,000 annual salary.

No Emeryville school officials were available for comment.

In considering Handy shortly after he was fired in Compton in 1992, Emeryville officials assured teachers they were satisfied that Handy was not responsible for Compton's financial woes.

"Teachers have asked the board: 'Hello, didn't you people know about Compton?' " said high school teacher Leslie Watkins. "And they said, 'Oh yeah, we went down there and asked around.' They say whatever they found wasn't enough to change their decision."

Teachers say Handy ordered cost-cutting measures to repay a $600,000 bailout provided by Alameda County this summer. The cuts have forced many instructors to purchase their own textbooks and to ration copy machine paper.

"We have nothing," Watkins said. "The toilets leak, and there is one working drinking fountain in the entire school. All field trips have been canceled. The school also has no public address system. It's broken and there's no money to fix it."

Kim Shipp has moved her 10th-grade son from school in Emeryville. "I put my son there because this was a small school district and how bad could things be? Well, I learned pretty quick," she said.

School officials acknowledge that test scores among Emeryville high school students are among the state's worst.

The red flags have caught the attention of state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who worries that "massive incompetence" may have followed Handy from Compton to Emeryville.

"In Compton no one really went to jail, but you have a repeat situation with Emeryville in deep financial trouble and you have to ask yourself, 'What on earth is going on here?' " she said. "There are no raises for teachers but the superintendent feels he owes himself a summer class at Harvard? It's just bad judgment."

As a precaution, school officials have seized Handy's credit cards, a move Eastin calls unprecedented. "We're concerned about credit card use and charges," she said. "And about contracts going to consultants without bidding or cost estimates.

"The question is, 'Is Supt. Handy spending the money on his own improvements in the district office, or on the kids?' In Compton, he had a reputation for spending more money to care and feed the administration and not students. We hope it's not the same picture in Emeryville."

Handy went to Emeryville soon after being fired by the Compton Unified School District amid allegations of mismanagement and dereliction of duty.

Months after Handy's departure, Compton became the first school district in California to be taken over by the state. This week, state officials began the lengthy process of turning control back to the Compton school board.

School officials say a district needs to be cautious and to be prepared to do a thorough investigation of an educator's background before hiring a superintendent.

"The problem is, nobody wants to be an urban superintendent or urban principal, so we don't necessarily set high standards," Eastin said. "But that needs to change."

*

ENDING DISTRICT TAKEOVER

The state announced its plan to hand control of the Compton schools to local officials. B1

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