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Council Balks at Backing District Breakup Plan : Schools: Issue of endorsing the proposal is referred to committee for further study. Its sponsor wanted a show of support prior to a key Assembly panel vote today.

July 14, 1993|JOHN SCHWADA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles City Council refused Tuesday to endorse a controversial plan to break up the huge Los Angeles Unified School District, leaving its Sacramento sponsor without a key ally when the breakup plan faces a key test today.

On a 9-6 vote, the council sent the issue of endorsing the plan by state Sen. President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) to a committee for further study. The vote followed a debate in which the plan was alternately blasted as being racially divisive and praised as the salvation for the city's discredited public school system.

Tuesday's vote was a sharp blow to Roberti and his San Fernando Valley allies on the council, who had sought the council's backing in time to influence today's vote in the Assembly Education Committee.

"I don't think it helps the bill, let's put it that way," said Councilman Hal Bernson, who along with Councilman Joel Wachs led the fight for the Roberti measure at City Hall.

Casting votes that surprised the Roberti side were Council President John Ferraro, who represents a small part of the Valley, and Councilman Rudy Svorinich, who was recently elected to a seat that represents the Harbor area and Watts. Both had been counted on by breakup proponents to vote for the Roberti plan.

The vote was a triumph for Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who headed the campaign to defeat the endorsement of Roberti's plan.

"This was a big victory for Jackie," one breakup supporter said. "In her first big test, she won." Goldberg, a former Los Angeles school board member, was elected June 8 and took office 13 days ago.

During Tuesday's debate, which lasted more than two hours, Goldberg was a whirlwind of activity, buttonholing her colleagues when she was not delivering impassioned speeches.

At one point she sharply scolded Bernson, accusing him of engaging in "the semi-competitive indoor sport of bashing the public schools"--a practice she said is unfair in light of successes by the school system despite years of budget cutbacks.

Among the successes, she cited the district's pass rate on Advanced Placement exams, which she said was higher than the state average.

Bernson was unmoved and insisted that the school system is a failure.

"Just look at the end result," he said, referring to what he and others regard as the district's dismal record. He warned that the situation will become worse if the Roberti measure does not succeed in Sacramento.

"If we don't do something, the people will act, and if the people act, you may get something you like a lot less than the Roberti bill," Bernson said.

He said later that he expects some kind of initiative will be mounted to break up the school district if Roberti's measure fails.

Today's Assembly committee vote will be the measure's first major test since it was approved by the state Senate, where Roberti is leader of the majority party.

Several members of the Assembly committee have said previously that the City Council vote would influence their decisions, and one of Roberti's top lieutenants, J. J. Kaplan, closely monitored Tuesday's council proceedings.

Roberti's measure calls for establishing a 30-member commission that would draft a blueprint for breaking the school district into at least seven new jurisdictions, none with more than 100,000 students.

The plan eventually devised by the commission would be put on the ballot.

During Tuesday's debate, the measure's proponents repeatedly denied racial motivations. "This is not an issue of race; it's an issue of empowerment and size," Wachs said.

The school district, with more than 700 schools and 600,000 students, is ungovernable, Wachs said, noting that it would take the superintendent nearly two years to visit one school each day.

"It's a system that has failed, and someone has to have the courage to fix it," said Wachs, who made the breakup a platform of his unsuccessful campaign for mayor.

Dismissing the charges of racism, Wachs said that the worst victims of the school system are its poor, minority students, who have no opportunity to bail out by enrolling in private schools.

If Los Angeles residents had greater confidence in the school system--which he predicted they would have if districts were smaller and more accessible to parents--they would be quicker to support more funding for education, Wachs said.

But opponents repeatedly charged that the Roberti measure would divide the school district along racial lines and severely damage educational opportunities for the city's minorities.

"It's an invitation to polarizing this city," school board member Jeff Horton said.

Councilman Richard Alatorre said the plan would be inherently discriminatory, and Councilwoman Rita Walters warned that it would be "divisive and tear this city apart."

Latino school activist Marshall Diaz said it was no coincidence that the breakup movement started soon after the adoption of a redistricting plan that paved the way for the election of a second Latino school board member. Diaz said he suspected that the same people who fought school integration during the 1970s now are seeking to fragment the district.

Richard Alarcon, the Valley's first Latino councilman, had previously expressed reservations about the Roberti bill, although he said during the campaign that he was sympathetic to the breakup movement. On Tuesday, Alarcon voted against sending the matter to committee.

His preferred solution would have been for the council to urge that the Roberti bill be amended so the commission it created would have the leeway to recommend that no breakup occur, he said. Roberti has rejected similar proposals.

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