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.
In Carson, the teachers union, rather than the school district, took on and defeated the breakup attempt last November. This outcome was then cited by school-district hierarchy as an endorsement of its reform agenda.
The Valley breakup drive never even got as far as the voting booth. In December, the state Board of Education unanimously denied a breakup election that, if successful, would have severed the San Fernando Valley from LAUSD and split the Valley into two school districts. State board members agreed with L.A. Unified that the plan did not conform with legal requirements. The state officials also were impressed with Superintendent Roy Romer and the improving scores of L.A. students on standardized tests.
It had to be especially galling for management at the Daily News to see plaudits going to Romer, its favorite whipping boy. Romer also has been the official most responsible for resurrecting the expensive Belmont Learning Complex project downtown, which the Daily News has used all its editorial resources to oppose.
”The fact that test scores have consistently improved in the last two years doesn‘t make for exciting reading,“ said school-board president Caprice Young, who defends district progress without staking a position on district breakup. ”We have 50 groundbreakings for new schools scheduled between now and November.“
Should L.A. Unified falter, however, the state board could, theoretically, interpret its legal mandate differently, or state legislators could simply change the rules.
In one respect, L.A. Unified offers an alternative still-evolving paradigm to secession. The district recently reorganized itself into 11 ”mini“ districts headed by local superintendents. The idea was to bring senior management physically and structurally closer to schools — to oversee reforms and react quickly to problems. The L.A. City Council is pondering something of this sort with a proposal for a borough system, like New York City’s. The idea is to offer more responsive, more local government without taking a sledgehammer to L.A. itself. But more local government is, in fact, more government and can easily result in more expensive government, as L.A. Unified has learned.
All told, board member David Tokofsky is ambivalent about a breakup. ”The advantages of staying together are political clout in terms of getting resources, and the economy of scale,“ said Tokofsky. ”But the bigger the beast, the bigger the trough. People can feed off you tremendously if you are not adept at your mission. Instructional issues also can go either way.“
Young sounded a similar theme on the broader issue of secession. ”If people would just focus on getting the job done rather than who has the power. How do we make better schools? How do we help the homeless? How do we improve the business climate?“
But no reform or success is likely to satisfy the staunchest secessionists. They simply want to run the show, or at least to have the show run from the Valley, whether the subject is schools or street sweeping. The outcome could be an improvement on Los Angeles, or L.A. Unified, but it‘s not likely to be confused with the mythic Camelot, unless we’re talking about what happened after Lancelot and Guinevere strayed. A Valley city or school district would still confront the same foreboding challenges and parochial interests, as was made clear this month by Galpin Ford owner Boeckmann, a leader in the drives to break up the city and school district.
Boeckmann didn‘t let his enthusiasm for better schools stand in the way of recent profiteering. In May 2000, Boeckmann paid $9.4 million to snap up a closed drive-in theater that the school district had long been trying to acquire for a middle school to ease overcrowding. Boeckmann’s intervention — he wanted the property to store excess car inventory — delayed the project for a full two years, which is most of a child‘s middle-school education. His move also pushed up the price of the property, because he paid $1 million more for the land than the previous buyer had two years earlier.
This month, L.A. Unified announced that it would pay Boeckmann $12.9 million for the 14.4-acre site. That’s a net profit of $3.5 million or 37 percent in two years for Boeckmann. The deal includes Boeckmann getting ownership of a maintenance and operations yard owned by L.A. Unified.
Camelot Unified is one thing, but business is still business.