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Los Angeles' Shuttered School Yards

The mayor of Los Angeles and I have this thing going. Well, maybe you could better call it a casual relationship. Richard Riordan keeps telling me (along with the rest of the world) that his top priority as mayor is to help the Los Angeles Unified School District. And I keep telling him (if only in my column) to recheck that mayoral job description - which says that he only gets to run the city.

Reminders of this legal stricture cannot hush the mighty mayoral mouth, however, which never stops singing that old school song. As the city's fortunes wax and wane, increasingly irrespective of the mayor's stewardship, the mayor at every public opportunity - inauguration, state-of-the-city speeches - lunges for school authority. While his keepers (one hopes) and I continuously attempt to restrain him with reminders of his constitutional inhibitions.

How frustrating this must be! If only things were different, Riordan must dream every night. If only, say, our state's Legislature would do for our mayor what those Illinois lawmakers did for Chicago's Richard Daley, when they enacted a special statute making him tyrant of that city's school district. What fun something like that would be for our mayor! And still more, what a great deal for the more than 600,000 schoolchildren of Los Angeles!

Well, maybe. Except that, when it comes to one of the few official city obligations that actually connect the mayor and the kids, the mayor recently dropped the ball.

The issue here is the city's role in budgeting after-school plans. Last fiscal year, the city contributed $3.5 million to the LAUSD's Extended Recreation Program. According to one city report, the city was extending non-year-round schools' supervised "playground hours by two hours during the summer months," with similar hours "provided to certain year-round schools." The city basically paid for two adult supervisors per playground to keep kids busy and out of trouble until their parents got home.

But this year, the LAUSD board, citing its own budget problems, apparently decided to cut the entire program drastically. City officials, fearing the adverse social consequences of having fewer children in recreation programs and hence more kids on the street, objected. Regardless, the allegedly kid-loving mayor's 1998-99 fiscal-year budget this spring cut out the city's contribution. On March 24, the LAUSD issued a memo noting this omission and officially proclaiming the programs' end. This must have caught Riordan's attention, because three days later he memoed the City Council defensively.

"This is untrue," Riordan said in his own memo, adding that he had met with LAUSD Superintendent Ruben Zacarias the previous week. Noting the city's $100 million budget gap, Riordan said he'd asked Zacarias "if he could continue the Extended Recreation Program without the city's $3.5 million subsidy." The superintendent, according to the mayor, responded positively, stating that the district, in the mayor's words, "would and must find a way" to fund the programs.

What ho, though. It seems that our mayor somehow forgot that Zacarias, for all his exalted status and salary, is really just the hired help, the top staff guy in the school district. He can't promise to allocate anything without the authority of the elected school board. Which he didn't have.

So whatever Zacarias may have told the mayor (who, after all, has managed to create miserable relationships between himself and board members), those formerly city-assisted after-hours programs are still going down the tubes, unless the board re-draws its budget. Or unless perhaps our Legislature and governor agree to pour a bit of the state's current $4.4 billion surplus into education. In any case, the matter of keeping the programs alive relegated itself not to the Mayor's Office, but to the City Council's Budget and Finance Committee. The committee's proposal for a million-dollar stopgap to save a city-related school-assistance program goes to the council next month. Which may yet preserve the schoolyard program from the complete negligence of a school-infatuated mayor who still hasn't figured out how the local school system he wants to run really works.

Hard Times

Bob Erlenbusch, a champion of L.A.'s homeless, had long ago promised us a real demonstration last week at the Hall of Administration. But I had no idea just how real it was going to be: This time, the board finally got some well-earned feedback on its nefarious General Relief cutback scheme from those individuals most affected by it.

The county auditorium holds about 700; it looked full Tuesday morning, and then some. There were people in wheelchairs and people with canes and walkers. There were people in neat shirts and ties, and the kind of people you mostly encounter hitting you up for a quarter outside City Hall. And they were all there to protest the county's July 1 end date for GR payments. (See related story in this section.)

There was a lot of shouting, screaming and acting out at the meeting. There were chants and raised fists. So the board did the courageous thing: It retreated to a backroom, while the regular security men, plus a dozen extra deputies - complete with crash hats and batons - formed a skirmish line before the rostrum.

"They're scared; where do you think they are going?" someone shouted. But in quieter moments, when the protesters' delegates got to speak, you got the real point of the assembly. The guillotine approach to GR was going to cut off a lot of recipients in the middle of their dependency treatment programs. So the cutoff was going to abort their attempts to help themselves.

Molina vs. USC, pt. 12

Speaking of board antics. The previous week, the supervisors voted 3-1 to move forward with the construction of the long-planned, renovated 600-bed USC County Medical Center that serves the Eastside and much of the rest of Los Angeles.

Who voted no? None other than the supervisor whose district is directly served by the hospital. That's right, Gloria Molina, who refused to compromise last year with the other board members on her demand for a 750-bed facility, still would rather there were no new USC rather than the diminished one the other members wanted.

Pizza Man

It's been more than a week now since Ted Rohrlich, the Times reporter long assigned to the charter beat, fled the scene, muttering incomprehensibly (in his last lead paragraph) of assorted political mayhem and mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. Well, it's a tough beat: Those weekend marathon meetings can sap anyone's sanity.

Now, however, the baton has been passed to former mayoral acolyte Jim Newton, whose maiden effort Saturday ignored his predecessor's sage conclusions that many problems remained in the way of charter reform. Instead, Newton proclaimed that all was pretty much well, give or take that convulsive disagreement on neighborhood councils.

One of Newton's sunny inferences reminded me of the reasoning of an American philosophical legend. Newton wrote that creating a larger council would make the entire council weaker by diluting each member's franchise. Wasn't it Yogi Berra who supposedly asked the counterman to slice the pizza four ways instead of six, "because I can't eat six pieces"?


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