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Ron Prescott, 68; lobbyist had held L.A. Unified's No. 2 job

October 16, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Ron Prescott, a trailblazing black school official who became an influential and respected education lobbyist, died Friday at his Baldwin Hills home of complications from cancer. He was 68.

Smart, charming and strategic, Prescott was frequently mentioned as a future school district superintendent. He rose as high as deputy superintendent, the No. 2 job in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Prescott's singular achievement as a lobbyist was leading the fight for new dollars to pay for integration programs. Such funding became the genesis of L.A. Unified's popular program that created magnet schools to promote voluntary integration. Those state funds now total more than $550 million a year. Prescott subsequently fought attempts to eliminate funding.

Tributes from colleagues read like a primer for effective, ethical advocacy.

"He knew how to slap you on the back and smile, and he knew how to push you," said Bill Lambert, a longtime teachers union lobbyist.

"He was very open with people, yet in a discreet manner," said L.A. Unified Assistant Supt. Santiago Jackson, who had worked for Prescott in Sacramento. "He merged being an educator with being a lobbyist. He could talk about the effect of major bills on students."

Dominic Shambra, a retired senior district administrator, recalled Prescott's advice.

"He said, 'You're only successful in this kind of work if you have credibility. Don't ever lie. Once you have and you're proven a liar, you're through.' "

Prescott paired an imposing 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame with a gentle, cheerful personality in his efforts to deflect legislative action to break up L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest school system, even when conservatives such as Paula Boland and liberals such as Tom Hayden aligned on the other side. Prescott also successfully pushed for extra money for students who had to be removed from regular schools and for schools that operated year-round because of overcrowding.

Born in Texas, Prescott moved with his family to Southern California when he was 4. Identified as gifted when few black children were given that label, Prescott graduated from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles and went on to earn undergraduate and master's degrees in education from Cal State Los Angeles.

Even in his first teaching job in 1961, at Murchison Elementary east of downtown Los Angeles, he stood out for his intelligence, said Shambra, who also taught at the nearly all-Latino school. "We started a government class at the school where we held elections for student body president and went through the whole governing process, which was a first for the kids there."

Prescott was the first teacher hired for a 1960s program that paired white and minority students in the district, said his sister, Patricia Marshall of Los Angeles. He founded the district's Office of Multicultural Education in 1971. And he led early voluntary integration efforts before the era of court-ordered forced busing.

His legislative work, which began in the mid-1970s, became his primary focus from 1984 until his retirement in 2000.

He exited the district during a period that saw substantial turnover among career administrators to devote himself to restoring an 85-foot yacht he christened St. Elmo Leonidas -- his father's name -- and the '63 Corvette he bought after leaving the Army.

But in Prescott's heart, "He never left L.A. Unified. He was always talking about how we could get back to fix it," Shambra said.

A public memorial is being planned. Besides his sister, Prescott is survived by his mother, Lee Prescott of Los Angeles.


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