By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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."