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Valley Interveiw

Weintraub Sees Need for Smaller, 'Manageable' School Districts

May 11, 1993

After 14 years as a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, Roberta Weintraub is retiring from her central San Fernando Valley seat at the end of June. Weintraub, who won election to the board on an antibusing platform, is planning to turn some of her energies toward breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District. Weintraub was interviewed by Times staff writer Henry Chu.

Q: You previously did not support a breakup of the district. What changed your mind?

In the beginning of my time on the board, we'd just been through the whole turmoil of mandatory busing, and there seemed to be some real hope that we could put this school district back together and have some peace and some education taking place.

Those were the quietest years--until the teachers union began the escalation of demands, resulting in the strike in 1989. That's when the entire dynamic of the L. A. Unified School District changed. And with the enormous loss of dollars in the district and the rise of unionism, you now have an extremely polarized community. I don't see any breaking of the animosity, and that bothers me.

Q: Should the Valley form its own district?

I'm not in favor of the Valley breaking off from the city. I'm in favor of breaking into relatively small, manageable districts where the superintendent has the understanding of every single principal, knows basically who all the teachers are, really understands what's happening out there and has a hands-on touch.

Q: So what is the right district size?

Not more than 50,000 students. Even if we had broken up into Valley and city districts, we would have been the two largest districts in the state of California and among the 10 largest in the whole nation.

Q: Is there no real distinction between Valley schools and city schools, then?

At one point you could make enormous distinctions between Valley and non-Valley schools. I don't think those distinctions hold true any longer. The old guard is dying out really fast.

You're finding more of a universality in the school district. The Valley is beginning to understand the problems that the central city and East Los Angeles and South-Central has had: the overcrowding, the problems of kids, the non-English-speaking population.

Q: A lot of people see racial motivations behind the breakup drive.

It's so easy to throw that charge out. It's not racial--not with a district that's almost 90% minority.

Q : Do you think a breakup can be accomplished through the state Legislature, as is being attempted now?

Not a chance, not with the way Willie Brown feels about it. As far as he's concerned, it's a crusade not to break up this district. It will never get through the Assembly. It's a waste of time trying to get it through the Legislature.

Q : So what route is left?

There is only one way: a petition campaign--getting it on the ballot and letting the voters vote on it. It would have to be very carefully drawn up so that the issues of desegregation and equalization of resources would be part of the petition, but that could be done.

Perhaps an evolution of this would be breaking off in high school complexes. I'd be in favor of anything that really gives an enormous amount of control to the community, where they really felt empowered.

Q: But didn't you already try that with school-based management?

School-based management failed abysmally. But change is in the air. Sometimes you fail, and then you fail, and then you fail, and then you succeed. In politics, sometimes it's just staying there with the issue.

Q: Until a breakup can be accomplished, should parents have confidence inA. Unified?

For many parents, going through the public school system is not a choice. There is no option.

If the parents are going to put their kids in the public school system, then they really must be involved in the school. They can't just send their kids to school and expect wonderful things to happen. Their involvement, their dedication is really going to make the difference.

And it isn't whether or not the school district breaks up. It's whether the school district and the economy of California improve enough to make a difference on some of the critical issues, probably the most critical of which is class size, which is out of hand.

Q: So does it just come down to money?

You can't ignore money. When you have a district back East that can spend $9,000 per student as against a district like L.A. that spends approximately $4,500, we know you can buy a lot more with $9,000 than with $4,500.

Q: Even more budget cuts are on the horizon this year. What needs to survive the ax?

I would personally cut out everything to make sure kids were in school longer hours. That is so desperate that it ranks up there with class size and other issues, because kids have no place to go and no place to feel safe after school.

Also, we must coordinate a series of health services for young people. Their health is failing.

We're down to the basics in the school system. I wouldn't be talking about these things 12 years ago. It wouldn't even be on our agenda.

Q: Those aren't directly educational issues.

But they are educational issues. If you don't feel safe, if you haven't eaten, if you're sick and don't have health services, if no one's inoculated you, if they haven't examined your eyes or your teeth, if you have infections, it's very hard to learn. Learning takes place in an atmosphere of safety and comfort, and when neither of those exists, it's next to impossible.

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