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A Taskmaster Heads North

June 04, 2003

Although cash-strapped California could ill afford a $100-million expenditure this year to bail out a school district that had mangled its finances, the state couldn't leave Oakland children without an education. So a loan to the Oakland Unified School District went through. The good news? On Monday, the state appointed a trustee with proven experience to return Oakland's schools to solvency and ensure that California gets its money back.

Oakland's new trustee, Randolph E. Ward, has played the same role in Compton's schools since 1996. In that time, the Compton Unified School District improved its test scores, fixed leaky school roofs, hired a batch of bright young principals and repaid its $20-million state loan -- with interest. With Ward's departure, Compton emerges fully from state control.

Ward says Oakland's problems should be easier to fix than the divisiveness and corruption he encountered at Compton. In Oakland, state schools chief Jack O'Connell already has taken Ward's first step for him, asking Supt. Dennis Chaconas to step down.

Chaconas, who introduced important educational reforms in his three years with the district, failed to stop a financial train wreck despite plenty of warning. During his watch, when falling enrollment reduced state funding, Oakland approved a 24% pay raise for teachers over three years, with no idea of where it might find the money.

Oakland teachers say they want to help make the district solvent but they won't give up a penny of their raises or stand for layoffs. That may have to change. Where this district -- with half of its schools in the bottom 10% of state rankings -- can't take cuts is in its educational programs, from curriculum overhauls to remedial programs. The district's leaders wanted their new state overseer to run the finances but not the classrooms; fortunately, the state ignored them. Ward will decide whether the district can keep class sizes at 20 for its youngest students and which textbooks it can afford.

In Compton, the change in test scores -- the vast majority of schools improved their scores in the latest round -- shows he knows what works for students, as well as for budgets. Ward says he had to stay tough, this year vetoing a 2% bonus for teachers that would have cost the district $3 million.

Now that they're back in control, Compton school leaders should be a model of fiscal rectitude -- for their colleagues in Oakland and elsewhere -- demonstrating that they learned some hard lessons in a decade of state oversight.

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