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Plan Envisions Mini-Districts Set Up Within L.A. Unified

Education: Cortines and Miller say each semiautonomous unit would have its own superintendent. Lawmakers express skepticism.

December 11, 1999|DOUG SMITH and LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITERS

The new leaders of the Los Angeles schools are working on a reorganization plan that would divide the 710,000-student system into semiautonomous units, each having its own superintendent.

Ramon C. Cortines, who will become interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District on Jan. 15, sketched out the plan Friday for several state and federal legislators and California Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. Cortines is expected to formally unveil the plan in mid-January, after he officially takes over from Supt. Ruben Zacarias.

The plan drew a tepid reaction from the lawmakers, who told Cortines and district Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller that they have grown impatient with repeated reorganizations that have failed to increase academic performance levels.

If the two new leaders do not immediately improve students' performance, they will push for breaking up the district, the lawmakers said.

"Historically, the forces for the status quo have argued that you ought to let the new guy come in and do good," said state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar). "Let them try things. We've tried LEARN, school-based management. The academics keep dropping. That is unacceptable and it will not forestall the wave of support that is moving toward breakup."

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) said: "We've heard all of this before--endless reorganization to keep the ship afloat."

Indeed, since 1974, the Los Angeles district has gone from being four zones, to 12 administrative regions, to 10 administrative regions, to eight areas, to four areas, to the current 27 clusters, each of which is administered by an official below the level of superintendent.

Cortines' plan, which he has not yet discussed publicly, would create from seven to 11 new mini-districts instead of the current clusters.

Alarcon said he thought that any new reorganization plan should include separate school boards for each new administrative area to increase public involvement in decisions.

"I would argue that it has to be as close to a breakup as possible," he said.

When pressed by the legislators, Cortines and Miller said they were neutral on the breakup issue, according to several people who attended the private meeting at the state office building in Van Nuys.

Hayden, who is pushing for a commission to devise two breakup plans for a public vote in 2003, said he demanded that the reorganization be performed in a way that could "set the stage" for a breakup.

"They said it could be," Hayden said.

The meeting was set up by Eastin to start a dialogue between the district's new leadership team and lawmakers whose increasing distrust of the district has led to threats of funding cutoffs.

Although Eastin invited about 30 state and federal elected officials, only four attended. Besides Alarcon and Hayden, they were Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles). Zacarias was not present.

The legislators gave Cortines high marks as an administrator but a somber assessment of their confidence in reform coming from within the system.

"My general assessment is he is a very qualified, competent superintendent who is as good as anybody to manage any district in the country. But as the district is comprised, nobody can improve the system," Alarcon said.

Wildman, one of the district's most strident critics, said he was the most optimistic.

"I'm willing to give them six months," he said.

But he also upbraided Miller for bringing in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to solve the district's facilities problems without consulting elected officials.

"There is a lack of respect for the Legislature," Wildman said. "We control the purse strings. We're just not going to tolerate it any more."

Wildman, who favors scrapping the environmentally plagued Belmont Learning Complex, said he told Miller that "until they drop this ridiculous Belmont, it is going to be very difficult to get money from the state of California."

Becerra said he expressed reservations about what might happen to Cortines' proposal when a new superintendent takes over July 1.

"The plan will be issued before the permanent superintendent is chosen," Becerra said. What assurances will there be, he asked, "that whoever that superintendent is won't say, 'Scrap the game plan, and let's do another one'?"

Cortines' proposal has evolved over the past several weeks. An early version would have divided the district into six mini-districts, each with its own superintendent and locally managed budget.

The number has increased to as many as 11 mini-districts that he believes would enhance efficiency, accountability, student achievement and parental input--all tailored to meet local needs.

Cortines' reorganization plan is bound to be compared with one unveiled abruptly in October by Zacarias. That plan aimed to use the private sector as a model to streamline the bureaucracy and divide the district into a dozen semiautonomous mini-districts.

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