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The Day the Bureaucrats Listened

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.

“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.

But in fact, there was some money in it. There almost had to be, because LEARN was set up to be voluntary, and the truth is, running a school is a real chore for hard-pressed teachers and parents. LEARN also is burdensome to principals, who can no longer get away with unpopular moves -- even if they’re needed. In fact, it‘s hard for a principal to do anything without persuading a sometimes fractious leadership committee to go along.

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.

Miller is exploring how to give Foschetti and others the flexibility they desire and hopes to report to the school board by December 14 on how to restore funds for this year.

Foschetti had planned to use her surplus to purchase a bungalow classroom, so that her school’s tutoring programs would have a location to operate. “Everyone in the district is working hard, but sometimes the vision is a little blurry if you‘re not working directly at the schools for the kids,” she said.

But for district budget analysts, the picture looks clear enough, and none too rosy in the long term. The centrally funded mandates are expected to have a higher price tag next year. There’s also the matter of expiring employee contracts, with all the bargaining units clamoring for raises. And soon, every school will operate using LEARN-style budgets -- this makes it harder to shield the surplus at a subset of schools by taking money from elsewhere.

Part of the problem has been that local discretionary money is the last thing funded. Schools get whatever is left over. Thus, a supposed centerpiece of school reform -- local control with local money -- is last in line, paid for with the dregs.

The priorities need to be reordered, said former school-board member Mark Slavkin, an official with the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, which provides school-reform grants. LEARN school budgets have “been a yo-yo experience without much rational stability,” he said. “This episode unmasked it publicly.”


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