The Day the Bureaucrats Listened 

L.A. school reform gets last-minute reprieve

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999

It was another big-news, bad-news week in the L.A. school district. On one front came word that school officials had just fired the contractor building the ill-starred Belmont Learning Complex -- the nation’s most expensive high school. From another quarter came notice that half of the district‘s students would flunk if held to state academic standards.

But it was not those bombshells that drew a swarm of angry parents, teachers and principals to district headquarters for last week’s school-board meeting. This vocal contingent was hot over a tiny but critical portion of the district‘s $7 billion budget. The money -- a total of $11 million -- was supposed to have been set aside for some 150 self-governing schools to spend as they pleased. But instead, district officials withdrew the funds at the 11th hour, in late October, to pay for other needs.

Taking this money away in midyear -- after schools had already adopted budgets and committed to spend the money -- was bad enough. But the seething resentment was also about the future path of school reform in Los Angeles. The argument is over who gets to call the shots at school sites -- those at the schools (including teachers and parents) or district administrators downtown. The districtwide LEARN reform program was established to put schools in charge of their own fate, as a spur to make schools better. But district and state funding mandates have eroded discretionary funds, undercutting local control even before it has been firmly established.

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“LEARN is dead,” principal Howard Lappin told the Weekly’s editorial board a few weeks ago. Speaking before the school board last week, Lappin was more diplomatic and hopeful. “We need to be given the flexibility to do what you‘ve asked us to do,” said Lappin, the acclaimed principal of Foshay Learning Center, who added that he is ready to be held accountable for the results, but “first of all, give us back some money.”

He was joined by contingents from other schools, including Palisades High, which sent parent Katie Braude to the podium: “Our scores have gone up,” she said. “We did our part. We expect the same from the school district.”

School-board members were noticeably cowed, and some vented their frustration on senior staffers, who conceded they had not fully explained how last year’s new spending initiatives were going to hit school sites this year. A politically expedient solution already is in the works -- $11 million is a small price to pay out of a $7 billion budget for peace at 150 schools. But budget analysts caution that, for next year and beyond, local discretionary funds could be ever harder to find.

“This is just the beginning,” said Chief Financial Officer Olonzo Woodfin, who clearly did not relish playing Scrooge. “There‘s no way to keep these encroachments away from schools . . . And those costs are going to grow.”

Six years ago, with much fanfare, the school board voted to jump-start reform with a revolutionary plan to let school communities govern their local campuses. The implicit acknowledgment was that the central-office bureaucracy had failed, and maybe it was time to give those closest to ground zero -- parents and school-site employees -- the chance to tackle their own problems.

The reform effort was called LEARN. School communities that voted to become LEARN campuses received training in leadership and budgeting, then formed committees to run their schools. They also received day-to-day support from the district’s LEARN office and occasional attention from the independent, nonprofit LEARN organization, whose governing board was dominated by corporate honchos. Before being elected mayor, Richard Riordan was instrumental in helping create LEARN. Later, as mayor, he maintained close, influential ties with the LEARN organization leadership.

From the start, the results of LEARN were mixed, partly because the plan mainly addressed how schools were supposed to be run, not what they were supposed to accomplish. Besides that, at some schools, LEARN never became more than a veneer of what it was supposed to be. And some powerful district bureaucrats, including outgoing Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, never fully embraced LEARN, even though it was the only official districtwide reform effort until last year, when Zacarias gave schools other options as well. Eventually, even Mayor Riordan turned in other directions, focusing instead on electing a new school-board majority, which he did by orchestrating the most expensive school-board elections in the country‘s history. In the process, his campaign booted incumbent Jeff Horton, the strongest supporter of LEARN then on the school board.

All along, critics had dismissed the LEARN effort as school reform on the ideological cheap, a reshuffling of deck chairs spearheaded by outside business types -- who were too anti-government and anti-tax to advocate for what was really needed: a massive infusion of new funding.

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