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Compton's 1st Choice Named Schools Chief

Education: After turning down the job, New Mexico educator changes his mind.

July 17, 2001|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three weeks ago, veteran New Mexico educator Jesse L. Gonzales turned down the chance to be Compton's new schools superintendent, citing declining physical strength.

On Monday, after a change of heart, Gonzales agreed to take over one of the most stressful education jobs in California.

Gonzales, 63, will be the first locally appointed superintendent in Compton in eight years. Since an unprecedented state takeover in 1993 for academic and financial mismanagement, the 31,000-student district has been run by an administrator appointed by the state Department of Education.

With much of the community still bitter about the takeover, Compton's superintendent is the only one in California with a state-funded bodyguard.

Four members of Compton's locally elected school board, meeting behind closed doors Monday, unanimously approved Gonzales' contract. It was their first major contract since the state began to restore the board's authority in January.

Gonzales told The Times on Monday that he would "without question" accept the three-year deal, with an annual salary of $165,000, when he arrives in Compton on Wednesday.

Gonzales, the schools superintendent in Las Cruces, N.M., for the last 12 years, withdrew his name from consideration last month, citing an ulcer and a doctor's warnings about possible heart trouble.

"But as I thought about it, I just don't see myself as being retired," Gonzales said in a telephone interview. "Compton is a challenge. It'll be the biggest challenge of my career."

Board members said they were patient with Gonzales because he was far and away the strongest of four finalists in a nationwide search. In Las Cruces, passing scores in competency exams for high school students increased 25% during Gonzales' tenure and the dropout rate shrank from 12% to 5%. With Gonzales' lobbying, voters passed four bond issues in 10 years.

In Compton, the district has failed three times in recent years to pass such issues.

Gonzales, who was born to migrant farm workers in New Mexico, started as a Spanish and history teacher at a junior high school in La Puente in 1966. He served as high school principal in La Puente and in Whittier before returning to New Mexico to become a school district administrator in 1991. He earned his bachelor's degree from New Mexico State University in 1964, his master's in school administration at Cal State Fullerton and a doctorate at New Mexico State last year. His dissertation was on school uniforms, of which Gonzales was an early and enthusiastic supporter.

Gonzales said one of his first moves would be to push for an end to state control. For at least his first several months in office, however, he will work alongside the district's state-appointed administrator, Randolph E. Ward.

Gonzales also will face immediate pressure from the district's teachers union, the Compton Education Assn., to begin negotiations on a new contract.

"I think his record is reflected in the fact that the entire board all successfully agreed to select the same superintendent," said chairwoman Cloria Patillo.

Although just four members were present to vote, the other two have indicated they strongly support Gonzales.

Monday's board meeting capped a strange three-week odyssey that threatened to become an embarrassment to the board. After it negotiated a contract with Gonzales in June, he faxed a letter of withdrawal on June 22, only hours before he was to be formally named superintendent. He wrote that he recently had a flare-up of a bleeding ulcer.

Gonzales explained Monday that his brother had a heart attack only three days before his withdrawal and that he had been told he might have colon cancer.

"I must acknowledge," Gonzales wrote in withdrawing, "that my age and related health concerns may impact my level of performance, and I would be doing the district a great injustice by accepting the position."

Four days later, two board members called him, asking if he would reconsider.

But Gonzales said he couldn't return. Nevertheless, when the board's search consultant asked members to submit names for a new list of superintendent candidates, member Saul Lankster wrote down Gonzales' name.

That prompted a call last week from the search consultant to Gonzales, who said he learned that he did not have cancer and was still interested in the job.

When board members learned of his interest Friday, they moved to approve a contract.

Gonzales said he is staying in shape by running five miles a day. "You still have risk factors at my age," he said. "But there's nothing insurmountable. I'm coming to Compton because I think I can effect change."

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