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Emeryville's School District Ends State Control With $1.3M Loan Payoff

EMERYVILLE (CBS SF) - Emeryville's school district on Thursday ended 10 years of state control by paying off the final installment of a $1.3 million loan it had to take out because of the large debt it had accumulated under its previous leadership.

In handing over a check for $864,000 to California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson at a ceremony at the Emery Secondary School, Emery Unified School District Superintendent Debbra Lindo said, "This is a pivotal moment and an opportunity to usher in a new day of learning" under local leadership.

Emeryville Mayor Nora Davis said, "This is a red letter day" that was made possible by city voters who approved a parcel tax and a $100 million construction bond measure that helped the school district get back on its feet financially.

Davis said the tax measures were approved by overwhelming margins even though only 20% of the city's voters have children in the school district.

"That says something about their commitment to the school district," Davis said.

Torlakson congratulated Emeryville officials for paying off the loan, calling it "the end of 10 years of hard work."

KCBS' Anna Duckworth Reports:

State officials returned partial local control to Emeryville's leaders on April 1, 2004, after its finances began to improve but full local control wasn't granted until Thursday.

Torlakson said that of the eight school districts in California that have had to take out emergency loans since 1991 because of financial problems, Emeryville is one of only four that have fully repaid them.

Among the four districts that have not paid off their loans are the Oakland Unified School District and the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Torlakson said it is important for school districts to operate under local control because "students benefit when their schools are in the hands of parents, teachers, administrators and leaders in their own community."

The Emery Unified School District is a small district with a total of about 800 students in an elementary school, a middle school and a high school.

Its problems date back to when it was headed by former Superintendent J.L. Handy, who pleaded no contest in 2002 to two counts of misappropriating public funds and one count of violating state conflict of interest laws by charging personal expenses on a school district credit card and steering contracts to his girlfriend.

In 2001, Emeryville voters recalled three school board members who had presided over the district's financial problems.

Alameda County Office of Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan recalled that, "The district was clearly floundering based on what we saw on the books" and "really had a rotten inside."

Jordan said the situation was so bad that there was a real possibility that the district could be dissolved and incorporated into the school districts of the neighboring cities of Berkeley and Oakland, she said.

But she said the Emery Unified School District has turned itself around and is now "a responsible and much more transparent school district."

Jordan said, "It's been a very wonderful journey to watch."

Among those who participated in the ceremony today were Henry Der and John Quinn, who served as state-appointed administrators to govern the district after it received the emergency loan from the state.

Also participating were state Senator Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, a representative of Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, Emeryville Chamber of Commerce President Bob Canter and Emery Teachers Association President Dawn Turner.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News contributed to this report.)

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