Outsider Chosen to Lead California Public Schools

CALIFORNIA is hotly debating another controversial fix for public education.

In what is perhaps the state's most trying time for K-to-12 schools in a half century, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has nominated a corporate-takeover specialist as superintendent of public instruction. With the mandate of helping the state's 478 overcrowded, underbudgeted school districts get the most from their dollar, Sanford Sigoloff, if approved by the Legislature, would fill out the term of former Superintendent Bill Honig, until an election next November. He was removed in January after being convicted on conflict-of-interest charges.

``By reaching outside the education establishment, we definitely seem to have taken people by surprise,'' says the governor's chief spokesman, Dan Schnur. ``Mr. Sigoloff is coming in as a manager and a problem-solver, not as an education reformer with an ideological agenda.''

Because Mr. Sigoloff has no background in education or politics, but will command the Department of Education's $24.5 billion budget and 2,500 workers, the nomination is making waves.

``We are very disappointed that Governor Wilson thinks that a corporate raider can best restore our public schools,'' says Allan Petersdorf, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. ``To nominate someone with no experience in the reality of today's classrooms is an insult to all of the dedicated, hard-working educators in California.''

The office is considered ``one of the most powerful in US education because of the size and clout of the state and its history as a bully pulpit to which people listen,'' says Alfred Lightfoot, an education professor at Loyola Marymount University here.

The governor's first choice, state Sen. Marian Bergeson, was rejected in partisan confirmation hearings last spring. According to most accounts, she had too much political and education experience to suit Democrats, who hope to have several candidates by next November, and who don't want to campaign against an incumbent. Sigoloff has said he won't run.

``It's a wacky idea, but what the heck: Let's give [Sigoloff] a year as state schools' superintendent,'' stated a San Jose Mercury News editorial, ``The Axman Cometh.'' Sigoloff called himself ``Ming the Merciless'' after the Flash Gordon villain.

A LONGTIME friend of the governor, he is known for saving bankrupt firms by firing nonperforming managers, cutting jobs, and selling subsidiaries. ``Why not see what an outsider can do?'' asked the editorial of the Mercury News, one of three papers to endorse the idea.

The state's largest school lobbying group, the California Teachers Association, is making no comment until its Friday board meeting, spokesman Jan Anderson says. But California School Boards Association president Charity Webb has been skeptical of Sigoloff's ability to do the job.

``We do know that he doesn't have any education experience to speak of,'' she says. ``And while that isn't necessarily a problem, one must acknowledge that education in California is a highly complex, unique business.''

Honig's current replacement, Acting Superintendent William Dawson, has also questioned the wisdom of the idea. ``I am greatly concerned that Mr. Sigoloff's appointment could bring to a grinding halt the hard-won progress we are making,'' he says.

As chairman and chief executive officer of Sigoloff & Associates, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm specializing in the restructuring and rehabilitation of troubled companies, Sigoloff is perhaps best known for TV ads he appeared in for Builders Emporium hardware stores. Before entering the business world, he spent a decade working as a nuclear physicist, publishing more than 30 papers in nuclear-radiation measurement.

Though the nomination has been attacked by Democratic Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, a likely candidate for the post, Sigoloff has been approved by Senate president pro tem David Roberti (D). ``[Sigoloff] is a technician who should be able to handle the job,'' Mr. Roberti says. ``The governor made the right move in appointing someone who is not running for election.''

Though no date is set for confirmation hearings, the nomination must be acted on in 90 days.

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