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Overseer Named, Bailout Signed for Oakland Schools

Administrator who put the Compton system back on its feet gets three years to fix another district, which receives a $100-million state loan.

June 03, 2003|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

State education officials appointed their longtime overseer of the Compton school system to take control of the insolvent Oakland Unified School District on Monday, just as Compton's public education was returned completely to local hands.

Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, named Randolph E. Ward to serve as state administrator of the Oakland schools, and asked the district's superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, to resign by the end of the day Monday.

Chaconas declined to be interviewed, but O'Connell said he expected the Oakland schools chief to honor the request.

Ward, 46, will assume control of Oakland Unified on June 16 after he wraps up his business in Compton, where he has served as a state administrator and trustee since 1996.

He faces several immediate challenges in Oakland, starting with the need to meet a $32-million payroll at the end of June and tough negotiations with the teachers union over a new contract.

"I have to hit the ground running," Ward said of his new job. "The bottom line is the achievement of students."

Ward's appointment Monday came on the same day that Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation authorizing a $100-million emergency loan for the 48,000-student Oakland district, in exchange for a state takeover.

Ward said he intends to spend time getting to know representatives of the many factions in Oakland, including school board members, leaders of the teachers union and others.

He said it was too soon to talk about how to plug the $82-million gap in the current budget, although he said the district probably would have to use some of the state loan to meet its June payroll.

Compton officials said that Oakland should be prepared for a straight-talking, hard-charging and sometimes autocratic leader.

"He's very forceful, but I think he's fair in most instances," said Marjorie Shipp, vice president of the Compton school board.

The Rev. Isadore Hall, the board's president, said of Ward: "Sometimes he'll make decisions without the input of individuals. It's because he feels it's the right thing to do."

Ward was named administrator of the Compton district in 1996, three years after the state took over the system for financial and academic deficiencies, including $20 million missing from district accounts.

Over five years, he designed new financial controls, revamped maintenance of aging campuses and hired principals who helped raise test scores, especially in elementary grades.

The Compton school district got back on its financial feet and paid back a $20-million state loan with interest. It built a school -- William Jefferson Clinton Elementary -- the first new campus in more than 30 years.

The state returned the district to partial local control in December 2001. Since then, Ward had remained as a trustee with the power to veto financial decisions he believed might harm the school system.

O'Connell decided that the Compton district had made enough progress on the financial and academic fronts to eliminate such state oversight.

Before he took over the Compton schools, Ward served as an area superintendent and elementary school principal in the Long Beach Unified School District. He also taught elementary school and high school for about a decade in Boston and elsewhere.

Ward has a three-year contract in Oakland.

"I've given Randy three directives," O'Connell said. "Continue to improve academic achievement for Oakland. Restore fiscal accountability and solvency in Oakland. Put yourself out of business as quickly as possible."

O'Connell introduced Ward during a news conference Monday at an Oakland elementary school.

Some members of the Oakland school board, which is being reduced to an advisory panel, voiced anger at not having been notified about the Ward announcement.

Board President Greg Hodge said he had found out about the O'Connell-Ward news conference from reporters calling with questions. He attended the event, but sat in the audience.

"I'm feeling pretty frustrated and disrespected by Jack O'Connell," Hodge said. "It clearly sets a very bad tone. To be treated this way and then expect to hold up good appearances is very difficult.

"I'm trying my best to be politically mature about this and do what is best for kids. I'm not looking to pick a fight. But I'm agitated about it."

Oakland school officials have proposed a 6% pay cut for teachers, whose 24% raise over three years is cited as one of the causes of the district's current financial problems.

Sheila Quintana, president of the Oakland teachers union, said a pay cut is out of the question, but said that she, like others, understands the need to work cooperatively with Ward.

"We don't have the luxury of infighting. That game is over," Quintana said. "We are going to sit down at the table and work this out."

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