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Big Stick

Former high school administrator Marshall Abbage spent two hours last April 6 at the office of his attorney in downtown Los Angeles, there to give a deposition supporting his workman's compensation case against the Inglewood School District. His troubles began, Abbage said in a statement, when he spotted the district's superintendent, McKinley Nash Sr., urinating outside a gym on school grounds.

Abbage filed a report on the incident with the state Department of Education. The next day five undercover Inglewood police officers under the command of Detective Paul Harvey arrived at his Culver City townhouse bearing a search warrant. "They made me sit on the floor while they searched for two hours," Abbage recalled later in an interview. "They opened my personal safe, looked in my wife's purse."

Nash had demoted Abbage in the weeks previous to the accusation and the search; Abbage was later stabbed by a student on campus, and now he was on disability leave.

Abbage completed his deposition, climbed into his late-model Mercedes-Benz and headed down Wilshire Boulevard for the freeway. To his consternation, two unmarked police cars fell in behind him and signaled him to pull over. Abbage stepped out of his car and to his surprise, Detective Harvey approached and ordered Abbage - at gunpoint - to put his hands behind his back. Abbage was handcuffed and told he was under arrest for suborning perjury. Police towed his auto and took Abbage to jail. He was released several hours later on $50,000 bail.

Abbage now faces prosecution for his efforts to persuade another witness to report Nash's alleged indiscretion. To outside observers the case might seem simply bizarre, but to Inglewood residents familiar with Nash's four-year tenure at the troubled school district, it rings all too familiar.

"Nash wants to rule this thing like Rwanda," asserted Kenneth Crowe, former principal of Inglewood High School, whom Nash also transferred and demoted. Crowe has filed a civil lawsuit against the district contending that Nash conducted a campaign to defame him. Aside from the suit, Crowe is calling for public hearings into the superintendent's conduct. "Anyone who doesn't bow down and do his bidding, anyone who engages in an intellectual discussion that may not be his point of view, then he wants to crush that person."

Nash has his supporters, including a four-vote majority on the school board, who portray the superintendent as a no-nonsense leader determined to rescue the district from the brink of insolvency and rid the schools of inept administrators. Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn contends that Nash, 64, is a skilled leader dedicated to the city's public schools and only requires more time and money to improve the district. Although Dorn acknowledges that three of the district's secondary schools are "a disgrace," he is "convinced we have the right man as far as the superintendent is concerned."

But Nash has engendered a growing number of critics, including many parents, who argue that he removes and replaces administrators and staff based on their allegiance to him, not their qualifications. Nash is also known for hiring people with troubled employment histories. Most recently, the superintendent selected Lowell Winston, a former Inglewood schools administrator, as the new principal of Inglewood High. Winston's return to Inglewood follows his suspension and transfer from a Memphis, Tennessee, high school last October, after an internal audit revealed that the school had $112,000 in unpaid bills and only $20,000 in the bank. According to one district source, Nash did not mention the principal's troubles to board members, who voted to approve the recommendation.

"This is the revolving door of sycophancy we have at Inglewood Unified School District," said Mike Triggs, a former school-board member. "It's not a meritocracy. It's a scamocracy. It's how far, how wide, how deep can we scam the public."

Wherever the blame might fall, it's hard to deny that the Inglewood district, home to 17,138 Latino, African-American and mostly poor students, is in a shambles. Already among the lowest in the state when Nash took over, the district's 1997 test scores for 6th- through 11th-grade students remain far below state averages. Students in the district's 8th, 9th and 10th grades perform at a 6th-grade level. At one middle school, 8th-graders read and write at a 4th-grade level.

One benchmark: Four years after Nash's arrival, the district still has not produced a state-required core curriculum - a written course of study for all students. "It's appalling and shocking," said Eleanor Clark-Thomas, manager of the state Department of Education's Coordinated Compliance Review Unit, which conducted a review of Inglewood's public schools in March. "They did terrible. It's almost unheard of for a district not to have a core curriculum."

By last February, parents were frustrated enough with deteriorating performance, book shortages, high teacher turnover and lavish fees for high-priced consultants that recall petitions were filed against three of the school-board members aligned with Nash. The petitions complain that some schools are so dependent on substitute teachers that children were recently sent home with nearly blank report cards. On one 7th-grader's report card, five out of seven grades were missing, and spaces allotted for a teacher's signature had been stamped "vacancy." The student did receive a D in drafting - a class he was never enrolled in.  

Finances for the 20-school district are similarly in disarray. Last month, county education officials ordered the district to return $143,500 in state funds because of faulty attendance record-keeping. And county education officials reviewing the district's 1997-98 budget of $86 million warn of a looming $945,355 general-fund deficit.

Outside efforts to assist the district have been squandered. When the state launched a $28 million program to update school buildings, district administrators ran up a $4.7 million shortfall in the project, and state officials are demanding the replacement of $1.9 million allocated for furniture and equipment that was diverted for construction costs.

In the meantime, some campuses are dilapidated to the point of posing a public menace. At Warren Lane Elementary School earlier this year, bathrooms were so filthy and reeked so strongly of urine that children refused to use them. Alerted by parents, county health inspectors found 25 violations of the health and safety code during a February 27 visit to the school.

At that same school, on March 23, a 7-year-old had the tip of his index finger severed when he tried to lift a heavy steel grating left unsecured on a playground by maintenance workers. The boy was one of several unsupervised students on the playground. "Nash is aware of the conditions of the school," said parent Carolyn Johnson. "He's been superintendent for four years. He's just noticed?"

Of course, poor student performance and shabby facilities are nothing new for Inglewood. As in nearby Compton, widespread poverty and chronic mismanagement have combined to keep the school district near the top of the roster of community maladies.

In fact, Nash was drafted by the school board in 1994 to reform a district many feared was spiraling out of control. By April 1997 the school board changed course, firing Nash for his management style. But Nash proved tenacious, and in the end savored a stunning triumph over the board members who had ousted him. In June, two months after he was removed from his post, Nash and his allies in the community managed to elect a new, pro-Nash majority. The newly configured board then voted to rescind his termination and rehire him. They also agreed to increase his annual $108,000 salary by 6 percent, upped his monthly car allowance to $700 and extended his contract to 1999. (Last week, the board voted to extend Nash's contract to 2001, with an additional 5 percent salary increase and the stipulation that he would subsequently be retained by the district as a consultant.)

That demonstration of community support, however, may say more about Nash's survival skills than it does about any revised estimation of his capabilities. According to his critics, Nash cultivated key sectors of support by doling out special favors that cost the district sorely needed funds.

Local churches played a pivotal role in that year's school-board election, speaking fiercely on his behalf - and in their own best interest. One local pastor, Wayne Hawkins of the First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood, now enjoys full-time employment in the newly created position of community liaison for the district's adult school. And back in 1995, Nash personally waived more than $14,000 in school-facility fees for the Jacob's Ladder Community Fellowship. At the time, fee waivers for the use of campus auditoriums were rare and needed board approval, but Nash directed an employee to process the paperwork without it. The superintendent has since changed the policy so that waivers only require his signature.

The Inglewood Teachers Association made news during the campaign by threatening a lawsuit that would reinstate Nash. And like the ministers, the teachers union benefited under Nash. Though still among the lowest-paid in Los Angeles County, district teachers have received pay increases totaling 15 percent over the last four years. During the same period, Nash doubled the amount of paid time union president Shirley Mims may take away from her high school teaching job to do union work, and last year her husband was awarded a reported $18,000 district contract to recruit teachers. Mims refused to comment for this story.

Little in Nash's public demeanor suggests the degree of animus he arouses in his critics. Reclining sleepy-eyed in a high-backed leather chair, he presides over meetings of the district board with the quiet confidence of a patient grandparent. A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Nash is often self-effacing and likes to sprinkle his conversations with folksy witticisms.  

But a review of his 35-year career as a public-school administrator shows that Nash has encountered controversy before, and has always managed to land on his feet. In 1980, Nash was appointed to fill one of two newly created associate-superintendent slots at a school district in Evanston, Illinois. Less than a year later, the district's superintendent called for the elimination of Nash's position because it had "not worked as well as anticipated." Charging that Nash's removal was racially motivated, local black ministers threatened to organize a school boycott. After several contentious public meetings on the issue, district officials agreed to form a committee to ensure black representation in school administration.

Still facing the loss of his job, Nash resigned to take an assistant superintendent's post with the Centinela Valley Union High School District, which neighbors Inglewood. In 1983, Nash was named superintendent, but soon found his job threatened again. By 1989, district teachers complained that Nash had labeled them as racists for daring to criticize his failure to improve student performance. Teachers successfully campaigned to unseat three school-board members who supported Nash, and in 1990 he was fired. Nash filed a lawsuit charging racial discrimination; the district later settled for $150,000.

Nash spent the next four years with the Association of California School Administrators, where he advised principals and assistant principals on their right to due process. According to several former colleagues, by the time Nash landed the job as superintendent in Inglewood, he had grown bitter about his career lapse and determined to maintain control of his new position.

"He's just caught up in power," said one former school administrator who twice worked under Nash. "He's dictatorial. He surrounds himself with people who are beholden to him. He's very conniving. He's very vindictive.''

When Nash managed to regain the helm in Inglewood for a second time, his critics say, he began exacting vengeance throughout the district. In his first month back on the job, Nash proposed a sudden district re-organization. Within a month, many administrators and employees aligned with his enemies on the old school board found themselves demoted, transferred or out of a job. To expedite the reassignments, Nash recommended the board abolish the Inglewood Management Agreement, a 16-year-old policy that required the superintendent to justify all reassignments and transfers.

Hollis Dillon, director of the district's Special Services Department, a well-respected program that served the district's most at-risk students, was among the casualties of Nash's reorganization. As Dillon recounted in court papers, Nash phoned Dillon's office the day before Thanksgiving in 1996. Candidates for Inglewood's school board had just announced their intentions, and the superintendent suggested Dillon support board member Thomasina Reed, a Nash stalwart, in her bid for re-election. Dillon has said he told Nash he would not vote for Reed. "He said, 'C'mon Dillon, Miss Reed is the best educated, and she's a real good friend of mine,'" Dillon said in an interview. "'I tell you she's going to win. You ought to support her, and if you don't support her, you are going to be sorry.'"

Dillon said he hung up the phone and turned to two nearby colleagues. "I went into this whole tirade about when I marched in Selma and how this son of a bitch wasn't there," Dillon said. "I said, 'You can't just tell me who I'm going to vote for.'"

Four months later, Dillon arrived at work to find his office computer missing. Assuming it had been stolen, Dillon filed a police report. A few days later, Nash, accompanied by two other administrators and district counsel Asa Reeves, walked into Dillon's office, where his staff was gathered for a meeting. "Nash said, 'Mr. Dillon, I want you out of here. I'm placing you on administrative leave,'" Dillon recalled.

Confused by the superintendent's order, Dillon asked Nash for an explanation. "He said, 'You've been doing politics on the job,'" Dillon said.

Dillon later learned police had confiscated the computer after Nash and Inglewood Police Detective Harvey - the same officer who raided Marshall Abbage's home - searched his computer files. The nighttime office search prompted outrage on the part of two school-board members, who wrote to him objecting to "the appearance of intimidation and Gestapo-like tactics."

Nash responded by contending that he and Harvey had acted on a tip accusing Dillon of embezzling district funds. They found no such evidence. But Harvey did allegedly find writings supporting anti-Nash candidates in the upcoming school-board elections. Harvey contends they included a political flyer and memos. Dillon claims it was a personal log he had written after school board meetings. A precinct calling list was found inside Dillon's briefcase.  

"Well, you might say that's not in good taste, but the Constitution of the United States allows me my First Amendment rights to say whatever the hell I want to say," said Dillon. Seven months later, Nash disbanded Dillon's department and demoted him to a teaching position. Dillon, along with four other former Special Services employees, is suing the district for violation of due process and political retaliation.

In yet another case, a district staffer was accused of a crime for which another district employee was later convicted. The target of this accusation was Kermet Dixson, a 23-year district employee and assistant superintendent of business services who was known as a stickler for the rules - some employees describe her as "coldly efficient."

That's why Dixson was so shaken in January 1996 when Nash publicly, and falsely, portrayed her as an embezzler. Nash insinuated at a school-board meeting that Dixson had been involved in a phony payroll scheme that had cost the school district $430,000. Three months later, Nash recommended Dixson be demoted to teacher, with a $39,500 cut in her annual salary. No one offered Dixson an explanation: "The police never spoke to me about it," she said. "Dr. Nash never spoke to me about it. I think he needed someone to pin it on."

To this day, Inglewood police have never questioned Dixson about the embezzlement. Custodian supervisor Andrew Truesdale was ultimately convicted of the crime of putting as many as 55 phantom employees on the district payroll. Truesdale is now serving a five-year prison sentence for the embezzlement. Police say they still expect to arrest more suspects in the case. Last November, on Nash's behalf, the district agreed to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Dixson claiming the superintendent's comments had defamed her reputation. The settlement amount was not disclosed, but Dixson is now pressing a separate civil suit claiming sex discrimination and wrongful demotion.

Two years after the ordeal, Dixson, 48, angrily remembers how Nash took away her job responsibilities without explanation and warned others not to talk to her. According to Melanie Slaton, Dixson's attorney, Nash sometimes disparaged Dixson in meetings with the comment, "Menopausal women are so illogical." Dixson said she suspects Nash disliked her because she was a strong-minded woman who questioned several of his actions. "I exerted a lot of influence over what was going on financially," Dixson said in an interview. "When people had to do anything, they had to come through me. So if it is not right, well, I'm known to stick to the rules. Perhaps that was a problem."


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