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Acting Out 

Like it or not, the school board seems, well, almost decisive these days.

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
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Any decision is better than no decision. The Los Angeles Unified board, calmed for a decisionless decade in its cultural Sargasso Sea, finally got decisive two weeks ago when it voted to unseat Superintendent Ruben Zacarias.

So did its appointed special commission on the oft-imprecated Belmont Learning Center a week later, when it recommended, 4-3, completion of the school, despite the now well-known flammable-gas pollution on its oil-well-perforated site. (I’d like to point out that former state Senator Charles Calderon, whom I twitted last week, voted in the majority here.)

There are a lot of people who like neither decision. I‘m not delighted either. The procedure behind Zacarias’ demotion might have passed muster in a Torrance ball-bearing factory, but it was no credit to the political sensitivities of board President Genethia Hayes. And to me, the previous board‘s selection and obstinate, politically pestilent defense of the Belmont site was the key symptom of the LAUSD’s mortal dysfunction.

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It is better to decide than to stall. What persuaded me otherwise may have been the letter to the Times about what it‘s like for all the 2,200 or so boys at the old Belmont to share one working toilet. Maybe the presence of hundreds of Belmont students helped the commission decide as well. None of these students will attend the new Belmont. But they know better than anyone how badly a new school is needed.

Another reason to back the Belmont go-ahead is the suggested alternatives’ basic feebleness: A front-page Monday Daily News article by Beth Barrett pointed out how the school officials who originally forced the new Belmont project on us also made good and sure there‘d be no easy substitutes for their chosen scheme.

The first alternative given is rebuilding the LAUSD’s administration site into classrooms. Others include building smaller high schools elsewhere and revamping high-rise offices into schools.

These suggestions, however, seem rooted in future contingencies -- like changing state regulations on classroom standards and finding huge scads of fresh money. It could take another generation to spin any of them into a working high school.

The 700,000 LAUSD students can‘t wait that long. At the rate that our LAUSD does things, no Belmont alternative would be ready to educate these students’ own children when they become teenagers. If then.

Granted that the choice of the current Belmont site was one of the gravest errors in the history of the LAUSD: Why should its bureaucracy have a chance to choose an even worse site? Such as that administration campus (has anyone tested it for toxics lately?). Or a nearby 30-story high-rise (think: Welcome Back, Kotter meets The Towering Inferno) or an eminent-domain clear-cut of the downtown hinterland‘s low-income, largely Hispanic-occupied housing? No, Belmont is the best chance for the city to have a new high school by 2005. Particularly since the experts have said toxic mitigation is doable -- such mitigation having been accomplished, without problems, on 10 other LAUSD school sites.

But it’s important to remember that the commission that voted to go with Belmont also recommended that the LAUSD not be trusted with the long-term, costly mitigation process. Could the district‘s reputation for chicanery and duplicity really outlast the noxious residues on the Belmont site itself?

I hope not. ”One [other] factor that’s changed regarding Belmont is that we don‘t feel that we’re being lied to anymore,“ said an official long connected to that project. Partly, this grudging growth of trust is due to the elimination of three fanatically pro-Belmont board members in last June‘s election. Some credit may go to Don Mullinax, the district’s sumptuously entitled director of internal audit and special investigations. Mullinax, who had to fight for the powers in his job description, was the first official to lay open the misdeeds of the Belmont process, naming nine employees as responsible. He‘s also called for sweeping administrative changes in the district bureaucracy. At least until his subpoena power runs out in two years, the LAUSD board finally has its very own ass-kicker loose in the bureaucratic bullpen.

Soon after the commission went for Belmont, something under 400 Latino Angelenos gathered outside the LAUSD headquarters Friday (Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden also attended). The placards protested Zacarias’ demotion while demanding reform of the LAUSD. Talk about contradictions.

It is easy to grasp how seeing Zacarias treated so unceremoniously might create resentment in the city‘s largest ethnic group. Some of his boosters have even suggested Zacarias was the Latino Tom Bradley, which is zany, of course. Zacarias has, to my knowledge, never made a courageous public decision, let alone won an election. Bradley made Los Angeles what it is today. The best you can say for Zacarias is that he can’t be blamed for doing the same to the LAUSD.

Zacarias was just a time-serving, cautious player in one of the Free World‘s most ossified bureaucracies -- until he was picked for his current post. He’s since made plenty of promises, and delivered on few of them. This does not make him a bad man, or even a lousy administrator. Many critics agree he‘s a considerable improvement over his predecessor, Sid Thompson.

But then Thompson represented a nadir, even within the serried ranks of lackluster LAUSD chiefs. Zacarias had his own problems, though. He was reported to be largely responsible for the district’s ineligibility for new state school moneys, and while he‘s promised things like more textbooks, these remain undelivered. So in some ways, he’s obstructed the reform those demonstrators demanded.

Worse, Zacarias rewarded with advancement many of the spavined hacks who diverted the district‘s focus from serving children to serving their own decision-taking careers. The superintendent who opposed social promotions in the classrooms apparently saw nothing wrong with social promotions of fellow administrators, who in fact did make the LAUSD what it is today.

To be fair, however, much of the Friday protest was not about restoring Zacarias. Indeed, the Mexican American Legal, Education and Defense Fund’s suit against the school board merely alleges that the Brown Act was violated. (Supervisor Gloria Molina, U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard and Assemblyman Gilbert A. Cedillo take the same position.) The MALDEF action attacks the process whereby the school board met to place new facilities executive Howard Miller over Zacarias without due notification. I think most people agree the board did fail to do this.

So board president Hayes might as well do the whole thing over and do it right -- due notification and open sessions right up to the final point of closed-session necessity. I know that many of his supporters say that they want Zacarias to get a proper employee evaluation too, but I think they might want to first check that demand with the superintendent. A hostile evaluation (look at the one the MTA gave construction chief LeRoy Graw before they fired him) can be a vicious thing, even for an exemplary employee. Which, even at his best, Zacarias doesn‘t altogether appear to be.

Hayes might also consider giving Zacarias some real-time administrative duties. They should be unrelated to the mighty tasks of getting the LAUSD’s rusty and decrepit machinery rolling.

But there‘s not much time left. Zacarias’ legislative supporters are only the latest batch of opportunists to urge the shattering of the entire LAUSD. Call the breakup the ”Let a Thousand Comptons Bloom“ alternative to the tottering, present organism. There may actually be reasons for such an undertaking, but the issue of where Ruben Zacarias sits until his planned retirement next June doesn‘t seem like one to me.

If the breakup proposal’s became a shopworn cliche, there‘s another possible LAUSD reinvention on the horizon no one seems to want to talk about. Within 15 months, this country could have itself a new president -- George W. Bush -- who devoutly believes in school vouchers. And how can the LAUSD, in its present state, begin to defend itself against a national innovation so contrary to its very nature?

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