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
So the district sweetened the pot with a scheme to raise money. The basic trick was to lower student absences, because schools with high attendance rates generated more money in state funds. On paper, such schools often had cash left over after paying staff and plant expenses, but this extra money never mattered in the past. It just got thrown back into the district pot. L.A. Unified, however, let the LEARN schools keep this “surplus.” A higher attendance rate meant a higher surplus, so these schools had ample incentive to get ever more students to class -- a benefit unto itself.
“The only reason I voted for LEARN and promoted it was that I knew we would get some money,” said teacher Ed LeVine, a leadership-council member at Chatsworth High. “We’d get ahold of our budget, and we‘d also get some [grant] money . . . If we want to become a superior school, it’s going to take money to upgrade our programs to do what we want to do.”
The total -- about $500,000 a year at Chatsworth -- was never much compared to the millions upon millions that it takes to operate a high school. But the most telling impact on students often takes place on the margins -- like that 20 minutes of a 24-hour day that a parent spends reading with a child. And so it is with schools such as Chatsworth, asserts teacher LeVine.
He noted that local discretionary money pays for added security aides, whose presence contributes to the school‘s internal sense of safety and well-being. The money also funds a worker who photocopies materials for teachers. Certainly not a mandatory function, but one that allows teachers additional time and energy for classroom teaching. Much of the money also goes for textbooks, which is why LeVine has the right tomes on hand for advanced-placement and honors classes in government and U.S. history. His students can even take their books home with them -- a privilege not afforded at some high schools, where there’s a single set of classroom books for five or six periods of classes.
Discretionary money also bought uniforms for the band, new physical-education equipment and a fax machine. And it has paid for the salary of an attendance counselor who pulls truants and dropouts back into school -- helping add, in turn, to the surplus.
In addition, said LeVine, “We developed a whole reading program for ninth-graders. The software alone cost $21,000. And we have full-time aides and two teachers who split time there. The LEARN money did this.”
Adding to the injury was the timing of the announced cuts, announced via an October 25 memo, a bitter pill for schools that had started spending the anticipated money on July 1.
That memo, in obtusely technocratic and unapologetic terms, signaled that the discretionary funds no longer existed, though schools would not be penalized for what they‘d already spent. Schools were given three options for redoing their budgets, but as board member David Tokofsky pointed out, schools lost the money under every option.
The bad news might have come even later without a request for clarification from Judy Burton, who heads the school-reform division. “What we’re doing now is very much in conflict with what we told schools,” said Burton in an interview. “It‘s imperative that if we have a policy of school-based budgeting that we need to keep that commitment . . . Or you change the policy and let people know that.”
That October memo galvanized opposition at school sites, and even energized Burton, who showed no fire over the matter when first contacted by the Weekly in mid-September. At the time, a number of school principals were even more restrained. Some denied the problem; others wanted to speak only off the record. All that reticence had disappeared by last week.
Part of the reason is that these schools have taken seriously the notion that they are in charge of their own futures. They also were encouraged by a sympathetic school board and outside organizations and community leaders who joined their lobbying efforts. But Burton and others also sense a potential ally in the new district leadership team of Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller and interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who replaces retiring Superintendent Ruben Zacarias in mid-January.
On November 12, Miller rescinded the October memo pending a review by the school board. “We are deeply concerned about the decision-making process utilized and the impact this action will have on schools and their educational programs,” wrote Miller, a successful real estate attorney who accepted an emergency appointment in October to head district operations.
“Howard Miller is coming from a different background,” said Maclay Primary Center principal Giovanna Foschetti. “Things have been done the same way for 50 years and nothing changes. We hope this is the beginning of positive changes.”
Schools lost their discretionary funds because of centrally funded initiatives -- including the district’s drive to end social promotion. Much of the lost money returns to schools through these programs, but it has strings attached on how it must be used. Foschetti, for example, already has a highly regarded grant-supported intervention program to end social promotion. She would rather get the same money in discretionary funds to enhance what she‘s got. Instead, she has to deal with duplicative mandates from downtown.