Board Bans BoardsEven before state Senator Tom Hayden proposed breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District, this columnist was a knee-jerk defender of that sprawling educational bureaucracy. It wasnt just for love of officialdom. It seemed to me it still does that a well-run, responsive, central authority is the best way to deliver a decent education for the huge and complex L.A. student body. The alternative small districts is likely to result in more Compton school districts than Beverly Hills USDs. Unfortunately, its every day less evident that the words "well-run" and "responsive" apply to our LAUSD. As to "well-run," we have Howard Blumes disclosures in these pages of just how appallingly bad district management has been on the incomplete Belmont Learning Complex project already the states costliest monument to school bureaucracys incapacity to spend taxpayer dollars intelligently. As for "responsive," look what happened last week to the districts seven volunteer education commissions. These panels, four of which represented ethnic minorities and three of which represented nonethnic groupings (gays, females, disabled), were abruptly canceled as of June 30 by the boards unanimous vote. If there was a contention that they had all served their purpose and it was time to move on, John Fernandez, director of the 30-year-old Mexican-American Commission, disagreed: "Low academic achievement, high dropout rates and low SAT scores continue to plague our students," he said. One thing should be conceded. These panels were often a pain in the ass to the board and infrequently supported the whole districts interests. Fernandezs commission, for instance, lobbied for the installation of Ruben Zacarias as superintendent, thus forcing out a potentially superior candidate of another background. The Black Education Commission touted Ebonics language study. On the other hand, the boards have regularly broadened the curriculum and helped ethnic groups better understand one another presenting programs at most district schools. Theyve also accomplished some quiet revolutions. The Special Education Commission, for instance, has been working to bring special-needs pupils into the student mainstream. Anyway, democracy is never pretty, and the panels, with a total of nearly 200 volunteer members, were the closest thing the LAUSD had to an everyday popular franchise. In speaking up for black, Latino, Asian-Pacific, Native American, gay, special-ed and female students, they formed an ad hoc legislature representing 95 percent of the districts student body. Throw in a Straight Caucasian Male Commission and youd cover nearly everyone. The board is now replacing these lively panels with a so-called Human Relations Commission. The board members are pretending that this is a step toward "unification." But, as they carefully avoid saying, theres a major shift here in both practice and purpose. Instead of advocating for specific groups within the student population or informing the entire student body about the minorities within, this commission (whose exact size and composition have not yet been determined) was designed last year to supplement not replace the minority commissions by monitoring intergroup disputes and complaints. Instead of being proactive, itll be reactive. The boards excuse for improvising this replacement of the original commissions is the alleged threat from Proposition 209. But no 209-based challenge is imminent. At its worst, such a challenge would only apply to four of the seven panels. Meanwhile, the boards craven acquiescence to a nonexistent right-wing threat can only spur anti-affirmative-action forces to find out what multicultural cargo the pusillanimous LAUSD might toss overboard if really challenged. But perhaps the board voted to silence the in-house critical voices merely to ease its weekly routine. Whatever the reasoning, the action was tragic and, ultimately, self-destructive. The nationwide trend in all public administration is toward more local representation, not less. Large school bureaucracies elsewhere have adapted to the conflicting demands of diverse populations by spreading the advisory franchise, the way New Yorks 25-year-old local boards do. Similarly, most city-charter advocates agree theres a need for more local government representation. Even Mayor Dick Riordan now pushes neighborhood government councils. In supporting the principle of central school authority, one had hoped the LAUSD would perceive the trend and become more responsive, less bureaucratic if only to assure its own survival. Instead of building on the representative concept contained, however imperfectly, in the various special commissions, the LAUSD board, without the faintest vestige of an in-house evaluative process (such as the one that county government uses to rate its own volunteer commissions), wiped out its most representative agencies. Thats not just arrogance; thats spitting in the face of history. You can only ask yourself: How long can such an institution survive? And indeed, why should it?