Schools Chief Tries To Tell It Like It Is

Education: After 18 months at Hueneme Elementary District, Robert Fraisse has a reputation for being straightforward. But some say he spends too much time seeking consensus.

PORT HUENEME—In a profession where practitioners are loath to offend anyone–parents, teachers or school board members–Robert P. Fraisse is that rare superintendent: the one who frankly speaks his mind.

Teacher tenure?

It’s time for powerful unions to make it easier to fire bad teachers, Fraisse said, by guaranteeing them work for only a set period of time.

Bilingual education?

Native-language instruction works for some kids, he believes. So keep it until evidence proves that English-only instruction works better in the long run.

Don’t like his opinions?

Chances are, you’ll like the Hueneme schools chief anyway.

Chalk it up to a background of coaxing awkward boys into talented basketball players. Whatever the trick, the 47-year-old superintendent of the Hueneme Elementary School District can build a team. When he speaks his mind, even those who disagree say they listen.

Fraisse (pronounced phrase) joked that he must have missed the classes that teach administrators to try to please all the people all the time.

“Sometimes it’s safer to stay silent,” conceded Fraisse, now 18 months into his tenure as schools chief of the 8,000-student district. “But I get frustrated by public officials who don’t speak candidly. I respect those who tell the truth–even if I don’t agree with them–as opposed to those who give double-talk.”

With a straight-talking style and dry wit, Fraisse has won many followers in Hueneme, an 11-school district south of Oxnard that spans million-dollar beachfront homes and farm laborer encampments.

After just months on the job, he helped steer his largely poor, 81% minority school district through the minefield of implementing Proposition 227, which placed limits on bilingual teaching.

Hueneme teachers quickly designed so-called English immersion classes for the first 30 days of school and told parents that they could opt for bilingual classes after that. In the end, more than 90% returned to them.

Despite his desire to tackle teacher tenure, Fraisse and the teachers union president can still chat over Dodger Dogs at the ballpark. And colleagues credit him with ending top-down management in Hueneme.

Of course, Fraisse would as soon take credit as he would trade in his Ford Explorer for the fancier BMWs or Lexuses favored by some local superintendents.

Administrators say that Fraisse compares favorably with predecessor Ronald Rescigno, who retired after 13 years.

Rescigno is credited with hiring more women in supervisory positions, helping seven of the district’s schools win state or national awards and bringing an enviable technology program to the district. But many say Rescigno lacked Fraisse’s openness to other viewpoints.

The new superintendent “inherited a culture that was noncooperative and intimidating,” said Principal Jon Cohee, who started in Hueneme at the same time as Fraisse. “When we first started having administrator meetings with him, the first couple were just flat. Nothing. No one would say anything. But he got to people. Now Fraisse comes in, and people don’t shut up.”

In his long career, Fraisse has racked up few detractors. Some parents in his previous school district, Las Virgenes, complained to the school board when then-Principal Fraisse suspended or expelled children caught with drugs or alcohol.

And the quality that most endears Fraisse to some can irk others. Attention to consensus-building strikes some as squishiness, not leadership.

“I tend to be more bottom-line oriented,” said longtime friend Donald Zimring, Las Virgenes’ deputy superintendent. “I would say, ‘Here’s where we need to go,’ and Bob would resist if he couldn’t get consensus. There would be times when he’d spend five days trying to reach someone unreachable. I’d think, ‘What a waste of five days.’ “

In Fraisse’s 23 years in the Las Virgenes district, his concern for listening to everyone’s opinions earned him an admirer in Sandra Pope, teachers union president.

“Some people want to be in administration because they want to be in control, or work their way up the ranks,” said Pope. “Bob looks at it as, ‘How can I make the system better?’ From a teacher’s point of view, we’d take him back in a hot second.”

Pope is unlikely to get her wish, for the stocky, 6-foot-2 Fraisse has fallen hard for his new district.

Hueneme is in many ways the opposite of affluent Las Virgenes, where Fraisse worked as a teacher, basketball coach, principal and assistant superintendent.

But the districts are alike too: Both routinely score well on basic skills tests compared to other similar school systems.

The son of a bank employee and a schoolteacher in Alhambra, Fraisse said he owes “basically everything good that’s happened to me to public education,” adding that schools “are the great equalizers.”

A basketball forward and a good–if not stellar–student, Fraisse was voted student body president and ‘most likely to succeed’ at Alhambra High School.

While there, he also met his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah. The two held off on marriage until Fraisse finished his bachelor’s degree at Cal State Los Angeles and got his first teaching job at a middle school in East Los Angeles.

Twenty-four years and two children later, Deborah Fraisse describes her husband as a mediocre housekeeper and a wonderful father. He coached son Matthew’s teams and accompanies daughter Kristen to the beach and dance recitals.

Lately, the demand of his $ 112,815-a-year job and other commitments leave Fraisse lacking for free time.

He reaches district headquarters from his Thousand Oaks home by 7:30 most days and leaves around 5 except on Fridays, when he and two other administrators take Spanish lessons from a district teacher. Fraisse usually attends a night meeting or two each week, in addition to teaching a three-hour school law class at California Lutheran University.

Weekends are devoted to his family and his thesis. Fraisse is on track to receive his doctorate from UC Santa Barbara in March.

Yet Fraisse never seems frantic.

He still finds time to listen to country music, Enya and light guitar. Between educational tomes, Fraisse snacks on mysteries by Faye Kellerman, Robert B. Parker and Walter Mosley.

“Hueneme has been renewing for him,” said Deborah Fraisse, who works in accounting at Agoura High School. “After years of being second or third in command, he’s ready to see how much a district can accomplish now that he’s in charge.”

Later this month, Fraisse will see how strong a team he has formed in Hueneme. That’s when a group of local educators will recommend more approaches to tackling Proposition 227, an issue that has split many districts.

The superintendent said he expects fewer families to opt for Spanish-language instruction next year. That’s because educators have more time to improve the English immersion classes required by the ballot initiative.

Emotions around Proposition 227 were running high when Fraisse arrived, acknowledged Frances Contreras, director of Hueneme’s educational programs. And some teachers were antsy about an outsider from an affluent, mostly white district taking over as the law took hold.

“There was some hesitation,” Contreras said.

But once Fraisse had read up on bilingual education and examined Hueneme’s program, people from both sides of this educational divide were seeking his counsel.

“It’s been a great 18 months,” she said. “I think anyone else in his position would not have been able to help us survive morale-wise. He’s allowed us to do this and keep our morale.”

Fraisse scored points with many teachers when his district joined 37 others statewide in seeking a one-year reprieve from implementing the new law, in the hopes of formulating a better program.

“He was really straightforward,” said Linda Bell, a sixth-grade teacher at Julien G. Hathaway School. “He said, ‘we’re going to do this because it’s the law,’ but he fought to keep some bilingual options open. . . . He showed he will go to bat for his district, that he doesn’t fall over and do whatever the state says.”

As his district prepares to hire 35 new teachers and tackles year two under Proposition 227, Fraisse hopes people will continue to stick with him.

“We’re going to get through this bilingual education issue,” Fraisse said. “But next year is going to be tough for all of us.”

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