Accountability Featured Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

School superintendent amassed $663,000 in compensation

Centinela Valley schools chief amassed $663,000 in compensation in 2013

This was the first in a series of stories on the big-money politics of a high-poverty, low-performing school district in Los Angeles County. The series won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. To view a landing page with links to the entire series and infographics, click here.

Originally published on Feb. 8, 2014


The superintendent of the Centinela Valley high school district negotiated a contract so loaded with out-of-the-ordinary perks that he managed to amass more than $663,000 in total compensation last year.

Documents obtained by the Daily Breeze from the Los Angeles County Office of Education show that although Jose Fernandez had a base pay of $271,000 in the 2013 calendar year, his other benefits amounted to nearly $400,000.

On top of that, the district just over a year ago provided Fernandez with a $910,000 loan at 2 percent interest to buy a house in affluent Ladera Heights.

Though Centinela is made up of just three comprehensive high schools and a continuation school in Hawthorne and Lawndale, Fernandez’s payout in 2013 more than doubled that of his peers in larger neighboring South Bay districts.

His total compensation even eclipsed that of John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system. Deasy’s base salary is $330,000 this school year and his gross compensation is just shy of $390,000, according to the LAUSD. But the district enrolls more than 650,000 students while Centinela Valley serves about 6,600.

“That’s obscene,” said Sandra Goins, executive director of South Bay United Teachers, the umbrella union for teachers in the Centinela Valley, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula school districts. “That places him above the president of the United States — the leader of the free world.”

(The overall compensation package for President Barack Obama — salary, benefits, plus other perks — amounts to $569,000 annually.)

Fernandez, 54, was hired in January 2008 to take over a district suffering from lagging student test scores as it teetered on the brink of financial ruin. He had worked in the district since 1999, serving as an assistant superintendent of business and executive director of its adult school.

A former Inglewood city councilman, he took the top job at Centinela Valley during a tumultuous time. His predecessor, Cheryl White, had just been fired, and the district was fiscally insolvent. Fernandez was viewed as a money-minded leader.

After serving nearly a year as the interim superintendent, Fernandez was promoted to permanent status in late 2008 on a narrow 3-2 vote. With the new title came a 19-month contract with a base salary of about $163,000, plus allowances.

As Fernandez moved to shake up the district and steer it back toward financial stability, school board members rewarded him with a generous contract in 2009. Though his base pay increased only slightly to $198,000, a careful read of the deal reveals some striking fringe benefits:

• An annual raise of 9 percent.

• A relatively short work year of 215 days, compared to as many as 245 days worked by superintendents of other school districts.

• The right to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year of 215 days.

• A clause allowing him to be reimbursed by the district for purchasing “air time,” or up to five years of service to add to the number of years he actually worked, so as to boost his lifetime pension.

• A stipulation that he can only be fired by a supermajority of the board (four of five members).

• The ability to cash out vacation pay.

• An option to take a low-interest loan from the school district to purchase a home.

Fernandez exercised the loan option a little more than a year ago, using it to buy the two-story, four-bedroom home in Ladera Heights, one of the more expensive ZIP codes in Los Angeles County. He has 40 years to pay it off, at an interest rate of just 2 percent.

“That’s a super good deal,” according to Steve Murillo, owner of First Manhattan Mortgage and Realtors in Manhattan Beach. Murillo noted that the vast majority of home loans must be paid off in 30 years; interest rates in the current market now hover in the low- to mid-4 percent range.

“It’s like they are giving him free money,” he added.

The revelations about Fernandez’s compensation package come at a time when State Controller John Chiang is calling for more transparency among California school districts about superintendent salaries. Last week, he began asking every public school district for compensation documents, so they can be posted on his website at

Chiang has been putting together a user-friendly database listing the salary and benefits of California public employees ever since the scandal in the tiny city of Bell, where city leaders hid their exorbitant pay packages from the public. City Manager Robert Rizzo was collecting a salary of nearly $800,000, part of an annual compensation package worth $1.5 million.

Rizzo, the former assistant city manager and six other Bell officials have been convicted of corruption charges. He is currently serving 10 to 12 years in prison.

“After the city of Bell demonstrated how the absence of transparency and accountability can breed fiscal mismanagement, my office endeavored to create a one-stop resource detailing compensation data for every public official and employee,” Chiang wrote in a letter sent to every public school district on Monday.

Fernandez declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, through a spokesman, that he was loath to have to defend earning what he is legally entitled to by contract.

But his supporters point out that he has brought big improvements to a district that, prior to his arrival in 2008, was on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention a state takeover.

“We were one payroll away from being taken over,” said Bob Cox, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. “This really was a scary place.”

Under Fernandez’s tenure, test scores in the largely low-income district — once among the lowest in the county — have risen, especially at two struggling high schools, Hawthorne and Leuzinger. (They’ve dipped at Lawndale High.) Also, major facility upgrades are either underway or finished at all three campuses, thanks to a pair of voter-approved bonds netting nearly $100 million each.

In addition, Fernandez played a key role in the November 2012 passage of a parcel tax that will bolster the district’s general-fund revenues of about $50 million by $4.6 million for each of the next dozen years.

“He’s a great leader,” said board President Maritza Molina, a 2004 alumnus of Lawndale High who was elected to the board in 2009, just months after graduating with her bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara. “He is very transparent with the board.”

The school board has been so pleased with Fernandez’s leadership that it unanimously extended his lucrative contract for another four years in 2012.

Pressed about specifics in the contract, Molina instructed a reporter to discuss details with Michael Simidjian, an attorney working for the district on a contract basis.

The Daily Breeze also called the three other board members who voted for Fernandez’s 2009 contract. Two of them — Rocio Pizano and Hugo Rojas — did not return calls. The third, Gloria Ramos, returned the call but declined to comment.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, said it isn’t illegal for a school superintendent — or any government official — to earn a high salary.

“Public officials can make high salaries if an elected board approves it in an open meeting,” she said.

Julie White, a consultant with the Association of California School Administrators, said she hasn’t come across so hefty a pay package in California. “That’s a large amount of money,” she said.

But she said it isn’t necessarily unusual for superintendent contracts to include housing assistance. That said, housing perks often raise eyebrows in the K-12 realm. In 2008, then-LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer drew fire for his $3,000-a-month housing stipend, part of a compensation package that totaled $381,000.

It isn’t entirely clear how Fernandez’s 2013 total payout breaks down. Some lucrative perks in his contract would be difficult for a layperson to spot. For example, one clause reads: “The District shall pay the employee portion of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) contribution and shall Compensate Superintendent for any service credit purchased.”

Though it sounds innocuous, that clause fattened his 2013 compensation by a six-figure sum that exceeds the entire annual salaries of many superintendents. About $215,000 of that came from the district’s one-time reimbursement to him for purchasing the service credit known as “air time,” said Simidjian, who works for the firm Dannis Wolliver Kelley.

Although air-time benefits vanished on Jan. 1, 2013, as a result of statewide pension reform, officials in Centinela Valley say Fernandez purchased his years out of pocket before then, and was reimbursed by the school district during the 2013 calendar year.

Another roughly $20,000 came from how the district covers Fernandez’s annual contribution to the state’s retirement system.

One obscure benefit pertains to the 215-day work year, which payroll experts say is short. It is more common to work 225; Deasy’s LAUSD work year spans 249 days.

“Two hundred and 15 days means that he doesn’t have to work nine weeks,” said a retired member of the California Association of School Business Officials, who is highly regarded as an expert on legal school payroll matters but asked that his name not be used. “If you get a full annual salary, and there’s nine weeks a year that you don’t have to work, you certainly don’t need to take 30 days of vacation.”

The short work year essentially encourages Fernandez to cash in much or all of his vacation time at the end of the year. His contract gives him 30 days of vacation annually.

In 2013, Fernandez did this to the tune of about $25,000, Simidjian said.

The short work year also increases his daily rate of pay. This affects yet another arcane-but-important provision in Centinela: The right for the superintendent to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year. In 2013, this contract provision beefed up Fernandez’s bottom line by about $50,000, Simidjian said.

Even if some of these expenses are one-time payments, Fernandez’s gross compensation has risen year after year since 2010, when it was $286,290. That amount ballooned to $392,000 in 2011, then to $403,000 in 2012 and $663,000 last year, according to county Office of Education, which calculates pay and compensation in calendar rather than fiscal years. In 2014, Fernandez’s total compensation is expected to return to the $400,000s.

Meanwhile, teachers in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, which serves communities where the median household income ranges from $33,000 to $49,000, have received two raises since 2006-07 — one for 1.75 percent in 2011, and the second for 1 percent at the beginning of this school year.

Jack Foreman, the Centinela Valley teachers union president, said the pay range for teachers in the district hovers around the county average, but the benefits package is among the least generous in the county.

“It really makes me feel sick,” he said of Fernandez’s compensation. “I think the message is that the district doesn’t put a very high value on its teachers.”

In an effort to make a fair comparison, the Daily Breeze obtained the same W-2 documents from the county for the superintendents of the Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula unified school districts. Total 2013 compensation amounted to $257,804 for George Mannon of Torrance Unified, $251,032 for Steven Keller of Redondo Beach Unified and $227,229 for Walker Williams of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified.

As for Fernandez’s compensation package, the retired school finance expert, who helped the Daily Breeze deconstruct the contract, said he has never come across a deal like this during his 29 years in the business.

“I’m just appalled — it’s horrible,” he said. “It’s such a rip-off. There are some similarities to Bell, you might say. And the problem is, since most of it is legal, who can do anything about it?”


Victims of Santa Barbara wildfire sift through the rubble

Victims of Santa Barbara wildfire sift through the rubble

Westmont professor Russell Smelley is among 14 faculty families whose homes were destroyed in the Tea Fire. Despite the loss, he has drawn strength from daily fellowship with members of his Warriors cross-country team. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Westmont professor Russell Smelley is among 14 faculty families whose homes were destroyed in the Tea Fire. Despite the loss, he has drawn strength from daily fellowship with members of his Warriors cross-country team. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

When Russell Smelley, a Westmont College kinesiology professor and the school’s cross country and track coach, saw the Tea Fire racing down the mountain toward his neighborhood of faculty housing Thursday, he and his wife, Allison, went straight for their daughter Alyssa’s room.

Alyssa had died of a brain tumor 2½ years before, at age 15, and her belongings in the bedroom were precious.

(Related story: Severely burned couple fights for life)

“This was the house where she lived and died, so we have memories of her in that room that are significant,” Smelley said Monday.

Still, Smelley didn’t think the fire would reach the house, since he’d long since removed all the flammable brush nearby.

But a few hours later, while driving through the smoke-filled neighborhood in a golf cart as a member of Westmont’s Disaster Emergency Response Team, he saw with his own eyes that he was wrong. His home was in flames.

“I looked at it and said, ‘That’s a tad disappointing,’” he recalled. “It’s one of those things, you know it can happen, so it’s disappointing. ‘Oh, shucks.’ It wasn’t until later that it didn’t feel so good.”

The Smelleys were among 14 faculty families who lost their workforce homes on the leafy campus of the private Christian college, and among 210 families who were burned into homelessness in the Montecito and Santa Barbara foothills.

On Monday, as firefighters beat the once-ferocious Tea Fire into submission, many of these residents — Smelley included — returned to their charred living quarters, where they sifted through the ashes of what had once been their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and garages.

The Tea Fire was a weirdly discriminating inferno, sometimes reducing an entire house to powder, while leaving its next-door neighbors virtually unscathed. Some have attributed the hopscotch pattern in part to how the wind-whipped fire at times spread not so much as a moving wall, but rather through the air, in the form of flaming palm-tree fronds, which resembled enormous floating embers the size of basketballs.

In any case, the capricious selection occurred in the neighborhood of Smelley’s home, which was surrounded by standing houses with minimal or no damage.

Smelley said he and his wife spent about 15 minutes collecting valuables.

“We were reasonably calm, but hurried,” he said.

In addition to grabbing items in their daughter’s room — pictures from the wall, some blankets — they took a few other keepsakes, such as a few DVDs, a computer and some letters written by an ancestor of Smelley’s who served as a cobbler in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Of course, countless possessions were destroyed. Over the weekend, Smelley procured some tools for sifting through the rubble. A popular presence on campus, he respectfully declined offers to help look through the ashes. The idea wasn’t so much for he and his wife to recover possessions as to contemplate the memories of what was lost.

“We want to be able to sift it and remember it, and cry over it, if need be,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, Smelley was the recipient of some striking generosity. At one point, a neighbor, who asked that his name not be published, came by to tell him that he had a surprise for his 13-year-old son, Travis: a new drum set, to replace the one that perished in the fire. Then, the neighbor handed Smelley a shoebox containing some of the ceramics that Smelley’s children had created in elementary school. The neighbor had gone into the house and taken them off the wall — while the roof was burning.

Clearly touched, Smelley shook the man’s hand, then gave him a hug.

Smelley was especially grateful on behalf of his son, who at age 13 has lost his sister and now his home, and almost lost his mother to breast cancer last year. (Smelley said the cancer is in remission and his wife has been given a clean bill of health.)

After the neighbor left, a flock of cross-country athletes stopped by to console Smelley. It wasn’t the first time they’d done so: He thanked them for visiting him the night before, and recalled how nice it was to just sit with all of them.

“There was nothing to say, just sit,” he explained.

Smelley assured the students that he was going to be OK, marveling at the generosity of the community, and adding that after all his family has been through, the loss of the house “doesn’t feel devastating. Just sad.”

On the Riviera a few miles away, Doug Crawford was also coming to grips with the loss of his home, in the 1100 block of Las Alturas Road.

“Our house is 12 inches high,” said Crawford, spokesman for the Navy League of Santa Barbara, which his wife, Karen, serves as president. “There was no structure left whatsoever — nothing.”

Crawford said he was amazed at the cooperation of neighbors, who knocked on one another’s doors to make sure everyone would get out safely.

He attributed the smooth evacuation to a neighborhood drill performed in May.

Crawford said he couldn’t believe how fast the fire traveled.

Around 6 p.m. — shortly after the fire started — a friend called to ask him how he was doing.

“We went outside, there was no fire,” he said. “By 7 o’clock it was like we were inside a furnace.”

Crawford said the time he and his wife spent grabbing valuables was harried and surreal.

“You end up taking some crazy stuff,” he said. “I wondered if I was going to have to defend my property — I got my rifle and some ammunition.”

He added, wryly, “The good news is there was no need to defend my property.”

During the evacuation, Crawford said the fire began to feel dangerously close, with large embers falling from the bright-orange sky and the sound of trees popping in the flames.

“My lungs burned for 24 hours afterward,” he said. “That’s how bad the smoke was.”

Crawford said he has been moved by the generosity of the community.

He and his wife were among the victims invited to attend a local briefing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The mayor and City Council members were there; they all hugged us and embraced us,” he said. “They promised the rebuilding transition process would be accelerated for us, and the bureaucracy would be minimized.”

What’s more, on Monday morning, one of the members of his church, El Montecito Presbyterian, handed him and his wife the keys to a three-bedroom condo.

“We just live in an awesome community,” he said. “It feels like jumping off a cliff, with the shock and awe of the fire, and then seeing the aftermath. What you realize when you go off that cliff is there is like a hang glider of love and support from the community.”

Featured Santa Barbara News Press

Golden Gate bridge jumper now spreads message of hope

John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000.

The moment he leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge, John Kevin Hines regretted the decision.

John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS
John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

So, during his four seconds of free fall on Sept. 25, 2000, with the wind roaring in his ears, the 19-year-old San Francisco City College student threw back his head.

When he knifed into the bay below, Mr. Hines felt an explosion in his gut — like shrapnel, his ribs had splintered into his organs. His limbs moved like jellyfish in the frigid shock of the saltwater. Witnesses swear they saw a sea lion keep him afloat during some of the 22 minutes it took for rescue crews to get to him.

Somehow, that day he became the 26th person to survive a suicidal plunge off the 220-foot-high span since it opened in 1937; at least 1,300 others have perished.

Now an unabashed lover of life, Mr. Hines, 25, has made a mission of reaching out to other suicidal people and their loved ones, and he’s speaking in Santa Barbara next week. His message is that suicidal people don’t truly want to die — they want someone to care, and can sometimes be saved by being asked the simple question, “Is everything OK?”

It’s a question none of the several people who walked past him that day on the bridge bothered to ask.

“I really mean it, I’m just glad for every second of every day after Sept. 25, 2000,” said Mr. Hines, who now works as an activities director at School of the Arts high school in San Francisco. “Hell, it was fun recouping in the hospital.”

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, he will be among a panel of speakers at a free forum on suicide prevention at San Marcos High School, which lost a student of its own to suicide last year. In July 2005, Andrew Popp became the 42nd person to jump off the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge on Highway 154.

Another person has since died jumping off the 420-foot-high bridge.

Unlike the Golden Gate, no one has survived a leap off the majestic Cold Spring monument, which was built in 1963 and crosses thorny brush and jagged rock. On average, one person dies every year jumping from the structure. The quarter-mile span is considered one of the highest concentrated spots for deaths — suicides or otherwise — in a five-county swath from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz, according to Caltrans officials.

Wednesday’s forum is hosted by the Glendon Association, a nonprofit group that provides educational services on topics such as suicide, violence, strained relationships and child abuse. The forum’s purpose has always been to reach out to anyone concerned about the issue of suicide.

But the 12th annual talk seems particularly timely because, in the minds of many local professionals, a spate of jumps and attempts last year was the last straw.

In the spring, a coalition that included sheriff’s deputies, highway officials, the Glendon Association and 3rd District County Supervisor Brooks Firestone started appealing to the general public for taking action to prevent suicides from the bridge. Most notable was the idea to erect a barrier fence at least 6 feet tall.

The group, with its detailed presentations and multiple experts on hand at two town-hall forums, appeared steeled for a public debate. After all, the battle over whether to alter the Golden Gate Bridge has raged for quite some time, with opponents of suicide barriers saying where there’s a will, there’s a way for suicidal people, and that trying to save them is not worth the price of altering an architectural wonder.

It’s a notion that Glendon research and education director Lisa Firestone — who is not related to Mr. Firestone — has been ready to combat, armed with a career’s worth of statistics.

But so far, the local group, called the Cold Spring Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee, hasn’t heard so much as a half-hearted counterargument. Even leaders of local historical preservation groups admit that something needs to be done.

“It was a little surprising,” said Caltrans spokesman Colin Jones, “but I think to the community’s credit they looked at the safety aspects first.”

As a result, Caltrans last week quietly moved forward with the project; officials say the barrier will be up in about two years.

Meanwhile, Dr. Firestone, a clinical psychologist, often notes that when barriers go up, suicide rates not only diminish on the bridges, but go down in the surrounding community. Likewise, in England, when they started using a less lethal brand of gas in the ovens, the grisly practice of committing suicide by sticking one’s head in the oven dramatically decreased, she said.

“When you restrict the means for suicide, the rates go down,” Dr. Firestone said. “It also sends the message to the community that we care and don’t want people doing this.”

Mr. Hines agrees. He has met No. 27 and No. 28 — the two other people who survived a drop from the Golden Gate after him. Both felt that same pang of regret as soon as they let go of the railing, he said. To him, it’s evidence that suicide attempts are spontaneous acts not often repeated after failure.

To accentuate the point, he goes back to the day he tried to end his life. During his bus ride to the reddish-orange-colored symbol of San Francisco, Mr. Hines wept, hoping somebody would ask him what was wrong. When he arrived, he paced along the pedestrian sidewalk, still “bawling like a little baby,” hoping someone would intervene. Cars drove by. Tourists walked past. Two police officers on bicycles, whose job it was to keep an eye out for jumpers, pedaled past him.

Then, “a beautiful woman comes up to me,” he said. “Blond, curly hair. Big glasses. European accent. She said, ‘Will you take my picture?’ ”

He did, saying to himself, “Nobody cares.”

As the woman walked away, Mr. Hines backed up to get a running start. He took a leap over the low railing, the bridge so high above the harsh waters of San Francisco Bay that helicopters regularly fly beneath it with ease.

When he jumped, he heard a gasp from someone on the bridge. As the seconds ticked by, the only sound was the wind in his ears.


If you or someone you know is suicidal, call the Family Service Agency 211 Helpline or the Santa Barbara Mental Health Access Team at 888-868-1649

Featured Santa Barbara News Press

Class Divide: A Tale of Four Middle School Kids

David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.
David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.

Note: This is a sidebar to the story called One School, Two Worlds)


Shane Lebow, Eduardo Anaya, Erika Berglund and David Ohms all go to Santa Barbara Junior High School and live within the same five-mile radius. But their lives couldn’t be more different.

If there’s a common thread connecting the parents of both groups, though, it’s a deep longing to find what is best for their children.


Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard. The eighth-grader, who also plays violin in the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, was recently ranked as one of the top 13-year-old golfers in California. He hopes to attend Stanford.

Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.
Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.

Shane’s parents admit that they could have afforded the $17,000 annual tuition to send their son to a private school they considered. The average class size there is half that of Santa Barbara Junior High, and students take far-flung field trips to places like Vietnam.

Shane’s mother, Teri, a UCLA graduate, vouched for the private route. At first, Santa Barbara Junior High — with its chain-link fence surrounding a concrete play area — reminded her of a prison.

“I sort of flipped out,” she said with a chuckle, adding that her experience with the school has turned out well.

To Shane’s father, Ken, a Syracuse University graduate and Wall Street stockbroker, it represented the real world.

Mr. Lebow is ever-conscious of smothering his children with too much involvement, or keeping them sheltered from diversity.

Ultimately, though, it was Shane’s decision. He chose the junior high school because most of his friends were going there. He said he couldn’t be happier.

“I’m meeting kids I would not have otherwise met,” he said.

Shane’s education is clearly top-notch.

In GATE science, he works with UCSB doctoral students on experiments. In GATE math, he is studying geometry, a class most students don’t take until high school.

His interests transcend schoolwork. In addition to golf and violin, Shane is involved with the school’s surf club and has even started playing drums in a rock band.

Mr. Lebow, 63, an avuncular man with the quick cadence of a native New Yorker, grew up with conflicting values. He was reared affluently — the son of a fur-coat entrepreneur — but it was the 1960s and he railed against authority. He grew his hair long and adhered to hippie ideals, yet was an incredible golfer himself. He played for Syracuse.

After college, he did a two-year stint as a social worker, helping welfare recipients in New York, but throughout had the sense he was adrift. At age 27, he got a job as a clerk at Bear Stearns & Co. — a brokerage firm in Manhattan that employed about 120 people.

His bosses saw promise and gave him a job as a speculator in commodities. Soon after, he became a full-fledged stockbroker; he’d found his passion. Success followed, both for him and for the firm, which now employs some 14,000 people.

Although he hasn’t retired, Mr. Lebow, who also has twin 7-year-old daughters with Teri, likes to say that his children are now his passion.


Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered: His older brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family. (See his story in "Tale of 4 Families" sidebar)

Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered.

His brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family.

Eduardo is among many students at the school whose primary language at home is Spanish. He speaks English haltingly, usually giving shy, one-word answers to questions. When asked, Eduardo divulges that he likes all things football. He often plays tackle football with friends in a park by the apartment complex. His favorite video game is “Madden 2006.” His favorite NFL team is the Philadelphia Eagles.

His mother speaks no English, but that hasn’t stopped her from getting involved with her children’s education.

For years, Silvia Anaya, 46, has regularly attended school fundraising events for her four sons, often preparing tacos for the group.

Ms. Anaya, who cleans houses by trade, is a short woman with some gaps in her smile. She is emotional about the prospect of losing her home. While talking to a reporter and translator, she broke down several times, tears flowing into a napkin.

Ms. Anaya said she is scared: Another gang member recently threatened to kill her son at Boys Camp. She’s also angry: How can her son choose gangs, when she has tried so hard to give him a life without the kind of suffering she endured as an orphan in Mexico? There, her alcoholic foster father beat her in unthinkable ways, leaving a scar on the back of her neck with a machete and another on her shin with a baseball bat.

“What more do they want?” she asked of her sons. She and her husband, Rey, have lived in Santa Barbara since 1974.

Rey lately has been rounding up witnesses and bringing them to Housing Authority hearings to convince authorities that his son was jumped by bat-wielding gang members who beat him severely. He is asking for one last chance, but he says he understands the authority’s position.

“They are really making an effort to clean up,” he said. “I’m at their mercy.”

Mr. Anaya, a 56-year-old former gardener, said he has been unable to find steady work since 2003, when the truck in which he was a passenger was broadsided by a bus.

The accident, which occurred in the Mesa area, left him in the hospital for days with massive injuries to the head and elsewhere, he said. To this day, he said he has problems with his knees, hands, neck and memory.



Erika's family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages.

Erika’s family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.

Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages. Their beautiful yard in Montecito harbors a dozen gnarled trees; their walls are adorned with countless colorful paintings.

Her mother, Matti, 45, is an artist from Norway who somewhat reluctantly acknowledges her success: At her last show, she sold five $4,000 paintings in one day. Her father, Barney, 48, is a geophysicist from Iowa who used to work for Texaco but now runs a freelance outfit named C.F.O. Consulting. He is also a bicycle racing enthusiast and was in charge of organizing the Santa Barbara leg of the professional Amgen Tour of California.

Erika, who speaks Norwegian, is on the student council, in choir club and loves art class.

“When I was little, I would always paint women, like she does,” she said, referring to her mother. “But now I’m learning different techniques.”

Erika said the students rarely talk about issues of race and class at the school, though she remembers how a lesson on Martin Luther King Jr. in GATE social studies once spurred a discussion about the segregation within the school.

Her mother praises the school’s diversity — a facet she missed out on early in life.

“I grew up in Norway,” she said. “I didn’t see a black person before I was 20.”

Ms. Berglund grew up in a blue-collar household in Oslo. Her own mother was a seamstress who started working in factories at age 14; her father owned a clothing store and was a javelin coach who trained Olympic athletes.

Erika’s father takes a down-to-earth view of his three children’s educations. He says, half-jokingly, that he offered to “send them away” to Cate or Thacher, exclusive boarding schools in Carpinteria and Ojai. One chose the private path, two preferred the public.


David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.

His father, Lee Haralson, has raised him since he was 2. It’s uncommon to see homeless men raising children, but Mr. Haralson is an unorthodox man.

“I used to walk around town with a stroller,” he said.

If there is one lesson Mr. Haralson has tried to instill in his son, it’s that he needs an education.

Click here to read a follow-up story about David and Lee

“I don’t want him living like this,” said Mr. Haralson, who chain-smokes and whose gnarled hands have at least two rings on every finger. He makes and sells them.

Mr. Haralson, 56, is a native of Flint, Mich. He signed up for the Army instead of graduating from high school. He went to Vietnam. While there, he said, his platoon was ambushed in the jungle, and he took two bullets in the hip from machine gun fire. Although he was flown to a hospital and treated, he carried the bullets in his side for some 30 years.

When David was a toddler, Mr. Haralson took him to South America. There, he said, he worked as a mercenary, training “people how to defend their property.” The pair spent several years living in lean-tos and bunkers in the jungles of Nicaragua.

David, who uses his mother’s last name, proudly proclaims that he once saw a 120-foot anaconda swallow a water buffalo. “It was 60 feet,” Mr. Haralson said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. “And it was a pig.”

Eventually, Mr. Haralson decided to return to Santa Barbara, where David was born. Mr. Haralson mustered the cash for a run-down motor home. He enrolled David at Franklin Elementary, where he skipped kindergarten and went straight into first grade. Every day, the man walked or drove his son to school. He boasted that David only missed two days of school.

“It was five,” David said. “Remember when you started getting those headaches?” David insisted on staying home with him.

Mr. Haralson said he has a brain tumor, as well as cancer on his lung and heart.

Last summer, Mr. Haralson, who blames Agent Orange for his ailments, said he learned he did not have long to live. He put his son on a plane to Michigan to live with his grandfather. Six months later, seeing he was still alive, Mr. Haralson decided to send for his son, who recently arrived.

“I missed him,” he explained.

About a month ago, Mr. Haralson enrolled David at Santa Barbara Junior High. He started classes shortly thereafter. Now, Mr. Haralson said, he hopes he can hold out for at least five more years. “That’s when he turns 18,” he said.

Colorful Characters Featured Other Freelance

Prostitution Vigilante Van Cruises Minneapolis Neighborhoods Looking for Johns

(Note: This was a story that was published on Aug. 7, 1999 in The Alley, a monthly newspaper covering the Lake Street area, an impoverished section of Minneapolis.)


Linda Kolkind isn’t afraid of the riff raff near her house on 12th and Lake, and she refuses to be cooped up inside because of it.

“This is where I live. I can have a garden if I so please.”

Highlighted with benches and a pool with goldfish, her award-winning garden blossoms with tulips, daffodils, and irises every spring. All this stands in stark contrast to the chain-link fence surrounding the garden, the Lake Street neighborhood surrounding the chain-link fence, and the menacing sign slapped against her stucco-walled house: Beware of Dog.

But her defiantly sown garden isn’t the half of it.

Kolkind sits in the driver’s seat of a rusty van parked in the street adjacent to her home. The van’s side, rear, and hood are spray-painted with graffiti. “Prostitution: the world’s oldest oppression,” “Real men don’t have to pay,” and “Down with Johns!” are some of the spray-painted messages. Kolkind, the owner of the van and founder of the Southside Prostitution Task Force, is evidently amused by the attention the van attracts.

She grins, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Quite the van, huh! It’s a moving billboard. Volunteers did the artwork. The thing’s literally held together with duct tape. It breaks down every other day.”

The Southside Prostitution Task Force – founded in 1992 – consists of about 20 members. Its primary focus is to work in conjunction with larger organizations like Pride and Restoration Justice, which provide rehab for prostitutes. Unlike the larger organizations, the Southside Prostitution Task Force takes a grass-roots, on-the-street approach.

“Most organizations want larger numbers – they don’t like to do this one person at a time. We will. Because we, being residents of this area, have been violated one person at a time,” she says.

In addition, the task force attempts to suffocate the prostitution business by hampering the demand side.

She tells me to get ready to witness the harassment of some johns. I get into the van, and she starts it up.

As we troll slowly down Lake Street, people walking on the sidewalk turn their heads toward the eyesore of a vehicle. Since it’s the middle of the afternoon, the van is especially visible. Some people frown. Others smile and shake their heads. One man at a bus stop gives us the thumbs up. Another man, smoking a cigarette and talking to a woman on a street corner, stops talking to the woman to look at the van. He holds his hands up and follows the van a few paces, strutting, as if to say, “Lay off!” or, “Wanna make something of it?”

“That guy’s what they call an entrepreneur,” she explains. “She wants drugs and money. He has both, so he gives her both, in exchange for sex.”

Designed to be visually upsetting to men that are interested in soliciting sex, the van’s graffiti has a tactical purpose.

“Prostitution thrives on the fact that these men think they’re anonymous. With this van, we try to undermine that by letting johns know they’re being watched.”

In the future, Kolkind wants to watch the johns more intensely. Her vision includes a new van equipped with a laptop, so she can immediately send the license plate numbers of johns to the DMV. That way, the DMV can immediately send her the addresses of the johns, so she can “spook them out a little bit.”

“For instance, we thought it would be nice to go have lunch inside the van right outside a john’s house and not say a word. And people will say, ‘why is that van here?’”

Seven years ago, Linda Kolkind considered herself a passive neighborhood victim of prostitution. Back then, prostitutes and their customers were no less visible than the Powderhorn and Phillips stores, houses, and bars on whose property they did business.

“Not only were they lingering around our neighborhood, they were having sex in our driveways.”

During this period, Kolkind, a mother, wife, and collector for a bank, laid blame upon the women who sauntered in her neighborhood. Then, a murder completely changed her outlook.

“There was a certain woman who was always hanging around here. She was maybe 40. Always getting into and out of people’s cars with various men late at night. I would scream and yell at her, and she would scream and yell back.”

The bitter feud lasted over six months but ended abruptly.

On September 23, 1992, a team of squad cars pulled into the parking lot of a dry cleaning store across the street from her house. Inside the building, someone had found a naked woman’s body stuffed into a stairwell. She had been stabbed repeatedly. That night, after talking to some neighbors, Kolkind learned the name of her rival for the first time: Linda Marie Priebe, the victim.

“My life was absolutely turned inside out because of it,” she said.

After Kolkind went to the funeral, she realized something had to be done.

“Many people tell me they go through all kinds of measures to ‘get the whores’ off the property. They swear at them, they throw eggs and stones at them. And now, I tell them, ‘it’s fine to act out, but you gotta find the right targets.’”

The targets, she says, are the males who can typically best afford the tricks. Most of these men, she says, are white and drive in from the suburbs. This is especially the case with establishments known as saunas.

Six months after the death of Priebe, Kolkind attended a neighborhood meeting dedicated to the closing down of a sauna in Powderhorn called A-Spa. “I had a lot to say at the meeting, because, after what I’d seen, I thought that I knew a lot about prostitution.”

This being the case, the meeting inspired Kolkind to start and lead the Southside Prostitution Task Force, which was solely devised to run the neighborhood sauna out of business.

“I thought this would be easy – thought it wouldn’t take us more than six months. But the police were less than enthusiastic until we let them know we were persistent.”

Two years later, Kolkind and the task force persuaded the police to investigate and charge Susie Kotts, the owner of the A-Spa.

Since then, Kolkind has quit her job, purchased a van, closed down six other saunas, and profoundly cleaned up Lake Street and the surrounding areas. At the same time, the former A-Spa is now back in business in the alley by the intersection of Lake Street and 17th Avenue. The sign by the door now reads “Healing Arts Spa.” The only vehicle in the parking lot is a new looking minivan.

“You really don’t see beaters in the parking lots of these places,” she says.

To reiterate her point, she drives the van to another sauna called the Delux Spa. The van stops next to the Spa’s parking lot.

“There’s the Johnnies,” she chuckles, nodding towards the cars in the lot. The small lot actually seems more like a large driveway. The five vehicles in the lot have taken the only five available spots. None of the cars looks more than two years old.

“We’ll toy with them a little – make ‘em squirm.”

She parks the van right in the front and points to the neon-green “open” sign.

“See that? In a couple of minutes, the light will turn off,” she predicts. Kolkind speculates that this is because there is some sort of agreement between the owner of the spa and the owner of the auto body shop across the street, as the Spa has no windows.

Suddenly Kolkind fumbles around for a notepad. “There’s one right now!”

An elderly white man exits the spa, looking both ways before stepping onto the sidewalk like a kid looks both ways to cross the street. He spots the van, looks at the ground, and limps towards his white car, parked right in front of the van. Linda pushes up her glasses while jotting down his license plate, which has a handicapped sign on it.

“Older white male, possibly 60 to 65. Short and bald. Nice car – Whittaker Buick.” While writing, she shakes her head. “It’s all about classism, racism, the haves and the have-nots.”

She finishes jotting down the information as he drives away.

“In a few days, he’ll receive a message from the police saying he was spotted by the spa. I sure hope his wife does not read his mail!” said Kolkind.

Naturally, such zealous behavior has awarded her some enemies. Once, a man banged on the window of the van while at a stoplight, threatening to “take her out.”

“Before we really cleaned up the area last summer, I was scared. But now they’ve moved to the Bloomington (Avenue) area. They’re like cockroaches – they go to where it is dark. So now (their anger) has settled to a quiet rage.”

Kolkind’s own intolerance has done no such thing. Until the Prostitution Task Force rids the area of its last john, it seems clear Kolkind’s own rage will remain loud and quite visible.