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Compton's Quagmire

It's now five years since the state Department of Education took over the Compton Unified School District. The mission was to throw out a corrupt and inept administration and show Compton - and everyone else - how to educate impoverished minority children. If the state's best and brightest couldn't do it, who could?

In short order, however, Compton Unified became a sort of Vietnam for state educrats. Although the state balanced the budget, it has yet to solve the twin riddles of crumbling buildings and bottom-feeding test scores. And instead of plaudits, the effort has brought on unending attacks from local critics, who view state administrators as invaders rather than liberators.

Last week, in a Compton school-district auditorium, state officials unveiled an escape hatch, a plan to return power to the local school board as soon as July 1, 2000. In the interim, a team of state-funded outside experts will offer advice ranging from contract management to test preparation. Importantly, the backers include both state education officials and some of those who've agitated against them.

"Things are changing in Compton," said school-board member Cloria Patillo at the locally televised hearing. "Watch in the spring of the year where our academic achievement will go . . . Our students are no longer hanging out at the candy stores."

For others, though, the war against the state continues unabated. Outside the hall, board member Saul E. Lankster led a straggling vigil of seven demonstrators. Into a hand-held mike, he sang the same words over and over: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."

Inside, fellow trustee Carol Bradley Jordan accused the state of corruption and racist colonialism - virtually dismissing the notion that anything had ever been wrong in Compton's schools before the state seized control. That's a popular myth in parts of Compton, and a self-serving one for the discredited power structure that used to call the shots. It's also a potential harbinger of things to come.

As one state bureaucrat put it, "My greatest fear is that in two or three years down the road, [the state] determines that the school district can be returned to local control, and then they entirely muck it up again in six months."

Therein lies a dilemma for the California Department of Education. At its core, Bradley Jordan's argument is hard to reject outright. At no other California school district have local elected officials been barred from making decisions for so long, five years and counting. Bradley Jordan asserted that the state would never get away with this in powerful Los Angeles, even though L.A. has some schools that resemble Compton's. "We need some accountability," she said, "and you can't get that if you don't elect your own officials."

Even a state education official speaking off the record recognizes the merit of this logic: "They have a perspective that they have a right to their own district, and they honestly believe the Constitution is being trampled on here."

The issue of local control resonates deeply within Compton, which is mostly Latino, but still controlled by black voters. Many of the black leaders are old enough to have taken part in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and many more helped fight and win a local power struggle with the Anglos who ran Compton before they did.

The state ed department took control of the schools as a condition of a financial bailout, but the Legislature also assigned the task of improving student achievement. And the solution in this arena was never as simple as throwing out the crooks and incompetents. Very few schools have succeeded in raising the test scores of impoverished minority students. And Compton's test scores were the worst, in part, because nearly all of its 31,000 students fell into this category.

For their part, the state-appointed administrators never stuck with an academic rescue plan, nor did they establish scholastic benchmarks to measure progress. The state's failing in this regard was underscored by the familiar ring of last week's hearing, which featured a new plan that sounded a lot like some of the old ones.

The latest strategy was mandated by last year's Assembly Bill 52, which was sponsored by Carl Washington (D-Paramount), who represents part of Compton. The district will once again be evaluated and monitored, this time by a team of state-funded crisis managers under the auspices of the Kern County Office of Education.

There's really no easy exit for state education officials and their boss, state schools chief Delaine Eastin. If she pulls up stakes now, political opponents will forever tar her with the failure of the Compton takeover. Her mixed record in Compton already has become a refrain of challenger Gloria Matta Tuchman in her bid to unseat Eastin in November's election.

And what of the future? The current Compton school-board members give the state pause. For starters, there's Carol Bradley Jordan, the sister of Compton Mayor Omar Bradley, a vigorous opponent of the state administration. Bradley Jordan defended social promotion in her remarks last week and also framed the events in Compton Unified as a struggle for power rather than for student achievement.

Then there's Saul Lankster, who was fired from the Compton police force in 1977 for allegedly filing a false overtime claim. Lankster sued over his firing and eventually settled with the city for a reported $126,700. In 1985, Lankster was convicted on four charges of selling false diplomas from his driving school. And during a previous stint on the Compton school board, from 1977 to 1981, Lankster emerged as an apologist. He characterized district woes as a public-relations problem and defended administrators even after a grand jury concluded that Compton staff masterminded a massive cheating scandal, laboriously hand-altering answers from wrong to right on some 1,800 standardized tests. It was the greatest rise in test scores from that period.

But no one exemplifies the history of school-board hijinks more than Bernice Woods, who served on Compton school boards in the 1970s and 1980s and was returned to the board in 1997. According to published reports during her previous board tenure, the Woods family had four relatives on the payroll, including her husband, who was hired as a typewriter repairman even though he had no experience. Published reports also noted Woods and eight other people took a trip to Hawaii on $6,440 in federal educational funds intended for disadvantaged children.

In 1986, while still on the school board, Woods filed a workers' compensation claim against the school district asserting that she deserved lifetime health benefits because dealing with the superintendent caused emotional distress. In the course of defending itself, the school district challenged Woods' credibility with evidence that she'd falsified her resume - no record could be found of four degrees she claimed, including her high school diploma. And a doctorate - Woods insisted on being addressed as "Dr. Woods" - came from a school later shut down for being a diploma mill.

Woods did not win lifetime benefits, but was awarded about $30,000 for her injuries from a fall on district property.

Another board member is Basil Kimbrew, the onetime campaign manager of former Compton City Councilwoman Pat Moore, who was convicted in 1996 of extortion and tax evasion. Kimbrew, who turned state's evidence against Moore, testified that as Moore's fund-raiser, he was the unwitting conduit for money that Moore had solicited as bribes. Soon after joining the board, Kimbrew joined Lankster and a handful of others in an unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn state control. But unlike Lankster, Kimbrew has now changed course.

"I thought I was doing the right thing," said Kimbrew, who works as an aide to Assemblywoman Juanita McDonald. But in "my first year as a board member I was totally screwed up. I knew nothing. I thought I knew it all."

Kimbrew credits his turnaround to training from the California School Boards Association, which offers guidance to new board members. He's now helped forge a slender four-vote majority that usually sides with the state administrator. The fourth vote was sealed when state administrator Randolph E. Ward recently appointed his own choice to fill a board vacancy.

Without question, the key player in district affairs is the fifth state-appointed administrator, the 41-year-old Ward, an acclaimed former elementary school principal in Long Beach. Charismatic and strong-willed, Ward, who is black, has won friends in Compton because he neither looks nor talks like an outsider - though he's dismissed by local critics as the state's Uncle Tom. In an interview, Ward said he's steeled for such challenges. "I have purposely put myself out there as the target in order to protect my staff and allow them to get the work done," he said.

Ward's made some progress - extending the school year for low-achieving students, renovating several schools, and repairing or replacing roofs at every campus. In addition, Compton is one of the first school districts in the state to get serious about ending social promotion. Last year, some 1,200 students were told they would not proceed to the next grade unless they attended both summer school and an intensive, yearlong follow-up to enhance their reading skills.

Some of the students had been making A's and B's in their classes, and, in a miniscandal, one or two teachers apparently changed students' grades downward to better match their low performance on standardized tests. Naturally, some parents were outraged over the grade changes, especially those who learned of the mandatory summer school only days before the session was to begin. A handful of parents have filed a lawsuit over the matter.

"There obviously was a snafu," said Doug Stone, a spokesman for the state Education Department. "But let's not miss the larger issue. Do you go ahead and let the kids slip through when they're not ready to read at grade level?"

This time, critics found themselves in the odd position of attacking Ward by defending social promotion. While the jury is still out on Ward's administration, at least his sort of scandal bodes better for the future than those of years past.