By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Larry Levine has learned his lesson about schools and secession. These days, when he goes before a group of Valley residents to argue against breaking up the city of Los Angeles, he begins with a question: ”How many people here think that by voting for secession, you will be voting to break up the school district?“
In a group of 25, he says, about seven hands go up.
Then comes his next question: ”How many of you wish that‘s what this vote would do?“
Another seven hands go up. Levine, co-chair of One Los Angeles, figures that many of the rest also belong in one group or the other, but are too shy or weary to lift their arms. So he makes his punch line as clear as possible: ”I’ve got bad news for both groups.“
Yes, the impending fall vote on city breakup will do nothing about the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the school system‘s ultimate fate and perceptions about its performance dominate the Zeitgeist of secession like an eclipse at noon, casting a shadow over the entire landscape.
For one thing, leaders of the school-district-breakup movement, such as former state legislator Paula Boland and Galpin Ford owner. And trashing the school district has long been part of the pro-secession campaign waged by the Valley-based Daily News. One recent headline screamed, ”Betrayed Again; LAUSD Bond Bungling Leaves $600 Million Short.“ And that was a news story, not an editorial. The commentaries included ”Let the State Board of Education Know You Want Control of Your Schools“ and ”The Valley Rip-off; City Hall, LAUSD Both Get More Than They Give.“
Even though city and school-district breakup are technically separate and unrelated, it’s not a great leap to connect a city that is allegedly dysfunctional because of its size and anti-Valley attitude to a gargantuan school district that also bears the name Los Angeles. And the condition of schools, along with missteps by LAUSD leadership, has frequently provided legitimate fodder.
”There will be people that perhaps weren‘t in favor of secession, but will vote for secession because they can see it will only help in breaking up the school district,“ said Boland, who served in the state Assembly from 1991 to 1996. ”We have to be totally honest“ about schools not being on the ballot. Still, she added, ”I think that schools are going to play a factor in the voting, and rightfully so.“
The argument made by Boland and others is that an independent Valley city would represent a powerful lobbying voice in favor of school-district breakup. (The school system could even be called Camelot Unified, after one of the proposed names for the Valley enclave.)
But other secessionists approach with caution, including Valley VOTE board member Joseph Vitti, who doesn’t want to be accused of making false claims. ”At every possible chance we get, we make it clear that school-district breakup is not part of secession. It‘s not part of our platform. We have enough information in our favor without stretching it.“ At the same time, the issue ”comes up with parents, particularly mothers, a lot. They want to fix the schools. With many parents, the first thing on their mind is the schools. And talk about a bureaucracy; it’s worse than the city.“
For secession opponent Levine, a political consultant by trade, even an understated linkage is maddening. ”You can break Los Angeles into two pieces or two million pieces, and the process for breaking up the school district doesn‘t change. The school district serves the city of L.A. plus a large number of other cities.“ If the Valley becomes its own city, ”You’ve just created another city that is served by the LAUSD.“
Senior district officials agree with Levine‘s analysis, based on the rules that would govern splitting L.A. Unified. These were crafted in compromise legislation sponsored in 1995 by Republican Boland and by Democratic state Senator Tom Hayden. These rules were a step forward for breakup advocates, because until then, the L.A. school board could veto any breakup proposal. But the requirements also forbid breakups that would worsen conditions for students left behind. And there’s the rub.
The school district opposes losing jurisdiction over Valley schools, because the result would not meet the requirements of current state law, said Gordon Wohlers, chief of staff for L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer.
Severing from the Valley would remove a disproportionate number of Anglo children, leaving the remaining Los Angeles schools more segregated, explained Wohlers, one of several senior administrators who has tracked secession-related issues. In addition, more than 10,000 students are bused into the Valley because of overcrowding elsewhere. Overall, the Valley simply has more classroom space per student. Compensating the rest of L.A. Unified for this loss of property would take an estimated $1 billion, according to a consultant who evaluated the proposed split for a county review panel.
Breakup advocates dispute both the numbers and conclusions, and also make the obvious point that Valley schools fall well short of educational nirvana.
District officials remained neutral on another recent breakaway bid, by residents of the city of Carson. ”The school district did not actively oppose the Carson breakup proposal, because essentially it met the criteria,“ said Wohlers.
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