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Riordan Renews Call for Breakup of Schools : Education: Mayor, who has wavered in support since campaign pledge, says district is too centralized to impose reforms.

August 25, 1995|JEAN MERL and BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After several years on the sidelines, Mayor Richard Riordan announced Thursday that he plans to take a new leadership role in the campaign to break up the Los Angeles school district, and offered to create a city advisory panel to coordinate the growing demand for smaller districts.

Riordan, who called for breaking up the district while running for mayor in 1993 but then wavered in his support, said he has concluded that the nation's second-largest district is too centralized for effective reform and should be dismantled.

He said the district's "central bureaucracy" has been too slow to relinquish its authority to individual schools, one of the major tenets of the LEARN reform program, which Riordan helped create.

"LEARN is working well, but the schools do not have the amount of power we had hoped for," said Riordan, who was active in education issues several years before running for mayor.

He said reform would probably be easier to accomplish within smaller, more manageable districts. Riordan said his ideal for a smaller district would include only one high school, two middle schools and 10 or 12 elementary schools. The district now has 650 schools.

Riordan said he began talking this week with education and business leaders about forming a panel that could serve as a neutral clearinghouse to funnel information to both sides of the issue.

Breakup supporters say they hope such a panel can aid the growing number of groups at work on separate, competing and potentially divisive plans to dismantle the district.

Legislation signed this summer by Gov. Pete Wilson has made it significantly easier for city voters to approve a district breakup plan, and groups pushing their own districts have emerged in several areas. That may make it difficult for any one group to develop a comprehensive plan to put before voters.

Riordan, in remarks made during a luncheon meeting in Universal City, acknowledged the difficulties in dividing the district--from sorting out union contracts to maintaining racial and ethnic balance.

"It's not going to be easy," Riordan said. But his proposed advisory panel of academics and business leaders would be a neutral resource to everyone with a stake in the breakup decision, he said.

Riordan, whose private foundation has donated computers to hundreds of public and parochial schools nationwide over the years, was a vocal advocate of breaking up the district several years ago. He later changed his mind, saying he wanted to give the district a chance to show that it could implement reforms.

But the apparent reluctance of the district's administration to grant complete autonomy to individual schools has led Riordan to once again throw his support to the breakup campaign.

School district officials said Thursday that they would have no comment on the mayor's newly announced participation. "When we see what he's really proposing, in a formal way, we'll comment on it," said spokesman Brad Sales.

The district has pledged to provide information to those who support the breakup, and Supt. Sid Thompson has said he will not fight any plan to dismantle the system that can prove it will benefit all students.

Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills), who authored legislation easing breakup requirements, said she welcomes Riordan's support and will meet with him today to discuss the issue.

"I want to see what he has in mind," Boland said. "The fact that he came to our office and wanted to be more deeply involved was certainly very acceptable."

Additionally, Boland said, she plans to meet with South-Central Los Angeles school board member Barbara Boudreaux and east San Fernando Valley schools advocate Tony Alcala to forge citywide alliances. Boudreaux and Alcala have formed groups to draft breakup plans that would protect their neighborhood schools.

Bobbi Farrell, legislative adviser to the Parent Teacher Student Assn. in the Valley, said her group is getting dozens of calls seeking information and offering help in the breakup effort.

Times correspondent Douglas Alger contributed to this story.

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