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Reform on the Cheap 

Schools lose money, control and programs

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

No one has to sell the staff at Walter Reed Middle School on the benefits of school reform. At Reed, a homegrown reform team took control of the budget and raised money to update computers, keep a nurse on staff, train teachers and tutor children. A key to this effort was the school’s ability to earn money from the L.A. Unified School District by improving student attendance — an incentive offered to all schools that embraced the district’s LEARN reform program.

But this year, at Reed and LEARN schools districtwide, the discretionary money has dried up, siphoned away by the school district’s central office. Reed is spending the last of its reserves this year, and expects to kill its locally funded programs next year. This outcome is bad enough, but teachers and parents perceive something even more disturbing, a fundamental revision in the direction of school reform in Los Angeles. Instead of reform driven by the leadership at individual campuses, district administrators are slowly but surely reasserting their authority over education dollars. And power is flowing away from schools along with this money.

"The whole idea of LEARN is that the local school community knows best," said Becki Robinson, a vice president at United Teachers Los Angeles. "But the school district is re-centralizing decisions. And the more the district mandates programs, the less money there is for schools to make decisions for themselves."

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LAUSD Chief Financial Officer Olonzo Woodfin prefers to focus on the upside. "Yes, the discretionary money is going down, but there’s an overall increase in the resources available to schools," said Woodfin. "And this increase is directed toward improving student achievement. This is not only the superintendent’s top priority, but the school board’s."

Still, many at Reed and elsewhere are wondering whether the best parts of LEARN are being allowed to wither on the vine, joining a long list of reform efforts that failed for lack of follow-through after beginning with great promise and hoopla. The LEARN organization itself, an independent nonprofit once charged with helping guide district reform, is at a crossroads. Founding chief executive Mike Roos abandoned ship this summer to pursue other, unspecified consulting opportunities. There is talk about folding the organization entirely.

Reed Middle School, in North Hollywood, was one of the first campuses to embrace LEARN, which was born from a conclave of educators and city leaders, including corporate raider, philanthropist and future Mayor Richard Riordan. The concept was that a school would improve if the entire school community — teachers, clerks, custodians and parents — took charge with the help of a non-authoritarian principal who coordinated group decisions. All district schools were supposed to become LEARN schools over time.

One incentive was financial. Once the district deducts overhead, money generated by pupil attendance returns to the LEARN school, even though staffing and plant expenses eat up most of this. By increasing attendance, Reed banked as much as $440,000 a year. The district estimates that nearly half of the 357 LEARN schools generated hard-won discretionary funds in past years.

At Reed, this money has meant a safer campus through the hiring of security aides, in-class libraries for most teachers, a school nurse for five days instead of four, new computers, an after-school reading program and teacher training in reading instruction. The last item was needed because many students can’t read well enough to do the work, and middle school teachers often haven’t learned how to use phonics and the like. The LEARN council also opted for fewer, but longer, classroom periods, and took a direct role in hiring teachers.

And when something needed to be modified — as when the tutoring was moved from Saturdays to after school — no one had to wait for a response from downtown.

The LEARN council also fields requests for funding, from the music department, for example. "A new sax costs $3,500," noted school counselor Leslie Schilo. "In the past, the music department could make a request for a new sax when an old one could no longer be repaired. Next year the answer will be no."

The root of the problem is the district’s encroachment on revenue generated by student attendance. A full year of attendance by a student is worth about $4,000 to a school system. Before this money reaches a LEARN school, however, L.A. Unified subtracts $257 a head to pay for central administration and $38 to reduce class sizes in the early grades, among other expenses. The total deductions are increasing, in large measure due to initiatives spawned at district headquarters. The anticipated charge for a program to end social promotion, for example, is $57 a head. Other fees result from legal mandates. The expected cost for special-education programs and the Chanda Smith Consent Decree, a court-supervised plan to improve programs for disabled children, is $359 a head; last year, that number was $270. The net effect is that little or nothing is left over at many LEARN schools, including Reed, even though Reed’s attendance actually improved last year. North Hollywood High could lose $131,000 in discretionary funds. Palisades High faces the loss of $407,000.

School-board member Victoria Castro supported most of these central-funding initiatives along with her colleagues, but said she was never briefed on the full impact on discretionary funds. "My preference is that money not be taken away from the schools," she said. "I get worried that we’re moving more and more that way. We are not giving schools the flexibility they need. If we believe in local control, we have to give it to them."

When contacted by the Weekly, the LEARN organization was unaware of this funding loss, but Mary Chambers, LEARN’s interim leader, was concerned. "Our hope is that we’re continuing to give schools more and more budget authority, not less," said Chambers.

Some observers see the fingerprints of powerful district administrators who always have been hostile to LEARN. L.A. schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, for one, was never an enthusiast.

And there’s always been some reason for skepticism. Although LEARN seems to help boost student achievement on some campuses, other LEARN schools have been plagued by apathy or discord, let alone bad test scores. Critics point out, too, that at the beginning, LEARN was more about a govern-ing process than about student achievement.

The momentum for LEARN began to flag as fewer schools signed on, and last year, Zacarias removed the mandate that all schools adopt the LEARN model. About half of the district’s 790 schools had done so by this point.

But local discretionary spending was undermined at a level well above Zacarias. Former Republican Governor Pete Wilson, while preaching the merits of local control, made a science of limiting discretionary funds through mandates such as class-size reduction and textbook purchases. Demo-crat Gray Davis has taken up right where Wilson left off in restricting the use of education dollars.

"It’s simplistic to think it’s all the doing of the school district," said Merle Price, a cluster administrator who oversees 42 Los Angeles schools.

Still, Price, who served seven years as principal at Palisades High, knows full well the pinch that LEARN schools are feeling. "When I came into Palisades High, before it was a LEARN school, I wanted to engage in a lot of school-reform programs, but I had next to nothing in terms of money," he said. After increasing enrollment and raising attendance rates above 96 percent, the school received an extra $500,000 a year. Price was able to hire an attendance clerk to call home every day when a student was absent, and also started a newsletter for parents. He bought and staffed a voice-mail system to help parents communicate with teachers and initiated new art classes as well as courses in computer science and environmental science. "That was precious money," said Price.

Now, Superintendent Zacarias — and the school board that employs him — has more or less followed the state’s lead in restricting the use of funds. Under tremendous public pressure to raise student achievement, the temptation to create centrally run programs is irresistible.

Part of this pressure, ironically, has been orchestrated by LEARN honcho Mike Roos and the magnates and academics who authorized his $240,000 salary. In the last two years, Roos clearly became frustrated with the limitations of his advisory role. After failing to steer Zacarias, he helped drive Mayor Riordan’s push to elect a new school board. But he also began to explore opportunities outside LEARN, including a $25,000-a-month job managing the successful campaign for Proposition 10, a new tax on cigarettes. Rumors of his departure from LEARN circulated for months before the formal announcement.

Of course, not all decisions at schools hinge on money. LEARN schools will keep their governing councils. They’ll also have access to the centrally funded programs. Reed, for example, may recapture its lost tutors with funds disbursed from district headquarters. And North Hollywood High students will benefit from a state and districtwide plan to reduce class sizes in the ninth grade.

But that’s not the same as local control, in the view of Barbara Roller, a parent at both Reed Middle School and North Hollywood High. "Local control is important," she said, "because every school is different and has different problems."

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