A troubling report card

by Andre Coleman, Pasadena Weekly, Feb 23, 2006

Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Percy Clark has been roundly criticized for everything from his seemingly tall tales regarding encounters with a snarling police dog in segregated Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement to claims that he played professional football to efforts to bring white, middle-class families back to the PUSD.

To his credit, the embattled 63-year-old superintendent has taken these criticisms like a grizzled prizefighter. Leading with a chin apparently impervious to damage, Clark continues to take hit after hit from not only other public officials but also a host of others, among them members of an Internet list serve that is devoted to talk about education-related issues, but recently has been abuzz with rumors about Clark’s pending exit from Pasadena.

Even while absorbing heavy blows, Clark has maintained publicly that good things lie ahead, or, in boxing parlance, things will surely turn around in the later rounds.

However, there doesn’t appear to be many cheering fans for this underdog, nor does there seem to be many more rounds left in what happens to be a real-life fight for his professional life as head of the PUSD.

As a matter of fact, many people want to see Clark knocked out, if not knocked out of the ring altogether when the seven-member Board of Education evaluates his performance as superintendent on Tuesday.

He knows he has critics. But, “I think we’ve made continuous growth,” Clark recently told another reporter. He did not return calls for this report.

In some areas, such as increased test scores at many area schools, that is true. But whatever growth there may have been during his nearly 5-year tenure at the helm of the district, other indicators of school progress are not encouraging, beginning with enrollment.

PUSD enrollment dropped from 22,309 to less than 21,000 students this year, forcing the district to cut jobs and eliminate school police. That lack of students – state funding is based on student attendance – led in part to a $6.5 million budget deficit that forced the school board to order the closure of Noyes, Allendale, Edison and Linda Vista elementary schools.

“There are people in the district holding their breath,” said a source close to the Clark employment controversy who asked not to be named. “There is a real disconnect with senior management. I think Clark’s future is very tenuous. There are people in the district who are ready to move forward because they think it will stabilize the district and establish partnerships with the city and new blood will be good for that.”

Clark’s supporters claim that his problems are not his own and cite declining enrollment in other districts as an indication that Pasadena Unified is only part of a statewide problem.

Many, however, disagree, among them members of the Pasadena City Council which recently began making noise about getting involved with management of the schools, prompting members of the school board to appear before the council to explain what’s been going on.

The heat appears to be having some effect, with Board President Ed Honowitz even agreeing to a management audit, something that school watchers have been demanding unsuccessfully for several years.

Currently, Clark earns nearly $200,000 per year, drives a car provided by the district and has his gasoline and other expenses paid. In addition, he earns an extra $20,000 as a bonus to his regular yearly pay.

Clark’s evaluation will be performed in a closed-door session that only the seven members of the board will attend. Neither Clark nor his assistant superintendents will be present.

On Tuesday, the board could decide that Clark’s contract should not be renewed after his term is up in July 2007 and use the next year to search for a replacement while Clark serves out the remainder of his contract. Clark could also opt for a generous buy out for the equivalent of 18 months worth of pay or the remainder of his contract, whichever amount is less.

According to Board member Bill Bibbiani, there are presently not enough votes to get rid of Clark, but he is certain Clark will not be receiving a contract extension either.

“I don’t know what prompted this evaluation,” Bibbiani said. “I thought we concluded it last November. I don’t know if the current topic is a re-opener on the leadership’s part or simply a means of expressing dissatisfaction, particularly with the school closure issue on the part of the board leadership. I feel that no extension is warranted at this time, but I don’t think the votes are there to end his contract.

“There is a lot to do in the next six or eight months given all the changes we approved. You don’t just fire a superintendent without realizing that many other staff changes follow immediately from such an action,” Bibbiani said.

Local school activist Rene Amy has been pressuring the district to put Clark’s buy out on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. However, board members are not obligated to discuss the matter in closed session or even bring it up at all.

According to some parents, Clark is not the only one that needs to be evaluated.

“I don’t think we should just look at Dr. Clark’s management skills,” said Catherine Anderson, who has four children in the district. “We should examine the entire board. I have heard board members claim they are in touch with how the community feels and I don’t think they are. The board held a number of community engagements and it was not what we expected or what we wanted. They closed the school my kids go to and they were hardly ever at the site.”

Clark’s announcement of school closures prompted residents of Altadena, which along with Sierra Madre comprises the remainder of the district, to begin discussions on secession from the PUSD.

“Definitely the school closures upset people and made it difficult for families up here to get their kids educated,” said Justin Chapman, an Altadena Town Council member and chair of the council’s Education Subcommittee. Chapman, a student at Pasadena City College, is also a regular contributor to the Weekly.

“They have to figure out the open enrollment and they have very few options. It has galvanized [Altadenans] certainly, but it’s deeper than that,” said Chapman.

“I did not favor closing schools then and I don’t favor closing them now,” said Bibbiani. “And I am concerned about the ones we did close.”

The Town Council’s Education Subcommittee met last Wednesday. It is expected that the entire council will vote in early March on whether to support the secession efforts.

A map of the boundaries of the proposed district has been submitted to the Los Angeles County Office of Education. After that is approved, supporters of the effort can begin collecting the 5,500 signatures need to move the issue forward to a feasibility study conducted by the county Department of Education.

“This is the culmination of years and years of frustration,” Chapman said.