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Fresno school official has a gift for giving

Supt. Larry Powell is retiring for one day, then going back to work for much lower pay so he can give his original salary and benefits back to the school district.

September 04, 2011|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • Fresno County School Supt. Powell in his office. His wife is a retired principal.
Fresno County School Supt. Powell in his office. His wife is a retired principal. (Tracie Cone, AP )

Reporting from Fresno — It was supposed to be a quiet thing; no fanfare, no press releases.

Fresno County School Supt. Larry Powell and his wife, Dot, a retired principal, had figured out a way to help imperiled programs in their struggling school district.

He would retire for one day. Then come back to work at a pittance compared with his former salary — putting more than $800,000 of his salary and benefits back in the district's coffers.

But in tough economic times, when public trust has been repeatedly battered, word of an elected official giving back money quickly made its way from a Board of Education meeting to national headlines. Powell spent his "retirement" giving television and magazine interviews.

"We were trying to not create a big stir," said Armen Bacon, spokeswoman for the Fresno County Office of Education. "But we're living in a time of despair and people are so hungry for stories about the impact one person can make."

Powell officially retired Wednesday. The district was contracted to pay him $235,000 plus benefits a year through 2014. He went back to work Friday, rehired at a salary of $31,020 with no benefits, to run 35 school districts with 195,000 students.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said Powell would go back to work Friday; he has already returned to work.

Powell said he will give his new salary to charity. His former, heftier salary will go into the district's discretionary fund.

He will have some control over where the money that could have gone into his pocket will be spent. His aim is to protect arts programs, an anti-bullying program that grew out of the Columbine High School massacre — and if things get even bleaker, fund teaching positions in the face of layoffs.

"We've become so focused on academics that we're losing the essentials: the arts, people who instill a love of learning," he said. "We're driving kids away from school."

The Powells decided over the course of several months that giving up his salary would be easy enough for them to do. They own a beautiful home. They have lifelong health insurance through Dot's retirement plan. Larry, 63, will receive $200,000 a year from his retirement pension built up over a 42-year career that took him from high school civics teacher to superintendent. He's reached the maximum pension allowed through California's teacher retirement system.

By any standard, they are comfortable. By the standards of a farming region with the nation's highest unemployment, they're wealthy.

They talked over how much money was enough money, and what they really wanted to do with the rest of their lives.

"We're at this point where we've had success," said Dot Powell, 64. "But there was a restless feeling. Like 'What happens now? What do we do next? How do we have an impact?' "

The couple met at a Fresno church baseball game in 1969 and were married nine months later.

Both came from poor, yet generous, families. Dot had escaped deepest Appalachia by becoming a flight attendant, even as she dreamed of one day being a teacher. Larry, an education major, grew up in Calwa, still one of the most destitute areas of Fresno County.

"I saw my dad giving away furniture and clothes even while we were adding a cup of water to the soup to make it go farther," he said. "Dot's dad delivered food house-to-house in the hills of Kentucky even when he was hungry too."

Larry Powell walks with a pronounced limp. He says polio is the best thing that ever happened to him.

"When I tell a kid they can overcome anything, I show them my braces and they have to listen," he said with a laugh.

He has an extensive yo-yo collection and still goes into the classroom to teach physics lessons with his spinning toys. On the side, he is an ordained Baptist minister who visits the sick and officiates at funerals and weddings. He's a paid motivational speaker. He claims to have never had a bad day.

"Yes, that can be annoying," said Dot. "But he's gained more empathy over the years."

On the wall in his office is a huge photograph of the Powells surrounded by a group of young Hmong women. When an influx of Hmong refugees came to Fresno, Dot recognized herself in the girls. Growing up in rural Kentucky, she had often been left alone, like them, to care for younger siblings. Neglect, sexual abuse and an expectation of early marriage had seemed the norm to her.

The Powells "adopted" nine Hmong girls and their families, taking them on outings, tutoring them and preaching that the girls must not lose themselves or their dreams.

"They're all in college now," Dot said as she and her husband welled up with tears.

The Powells' daughter, 30-year-old Katelyn Carter, director of special education for a charter school, laughed off naysayers who claim there must be a trick, that Powell was just trying to nab his full pension before some future reform or pull off a fancy tax break.

"This is just who they are," she said. "I can't tell you how many times in high school they took me aside to say, 'This doesn't leave the family, but we're donating a large amount of money to this project or that program.' Growing up in this family, I understood from a very young age that if you don't make things better for those around you, you haven't done your job.

"I thought it was just the norm — until the news trucks pulled up."

metro@latimes.com

Marcum is a Times special correspondent.

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