Ramon C. Cortines, who next week will become interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, on Tuesday unveiled a plan for shifting authority and funds to local schools by dividing the district into 11 sub-districts.
The plan, which Cortines hopes to implement by the time a permanent superintendent is selected in July, would decentralize power in the sprawling district and dispatch hundreds of workers from the downtown headquarters to the field.
"This plan is the first step in a process that will dismantle the old district culture and create the basis for lasting educational change," said Cortines, a former San Francisco, Pasadena and New York schools superintendent with a reputation for steering school systems through troubled times.
"We're on a very fast train as of today," he said.
The districts would each be headed by a local superintendent. The size would vary depending on the problems in area schools, such as the number of children living in poverty and the number of uncredentialed teachers.
For example, a proposed district in South Los Angeles would take in only 43 schools and about 51,000 students, compared to a district on the Westside that would cover 95 schools and about 58,000 students.
The districts would be built around groups of high schools and include the elementary and middle schools that feed them. Currently, the district is divided into 27 so-called clusters, which are also anchored by high schools but are still dominated by downtown headquarters.
Three of the new districts would be in the San Fernando Valley. Five would be in South-Central and Southeast Los Angeles. The northeast portion of the district, the Westside and Eastside would each be home to one district.
The proposed structure is designed to allow for more community involvement in a broad range of school affairs, from funding decisions to implementation of academic programs. Each district would have a 13-member advisory council of parents and community leaders.
To increase accountability, each superintendent would report directly to the general superintendent. As it stands, cluster leaders are separated from the superintendent by a layer of deputy superintendents.
Teachers, principals and administrators would be held accountable for improving student achievement as measured by standards-based test scores and reading skills.
Evaluations of principals would take into account test scores, as well as the ability to collaborate with staff and parents, and develop community outreach programs. Teachers would be held responsible for "creating an environment" that would emphasize reading skills and comprehension, Cortines said.
Board members and union leaders expressed cautious optimism about the plan, which is expected to be presented to the board in March. Some expressed concern about the district boundaries, and the plan to make teachers and principals more accountable.
"It's easy to blame everything on principals, so we're very disturbed by his emphasis on rating principals by their students' test scores," said Eli Brent, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.
Becki Robinson, vice president of the 40,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles union, said, "This plan is a good start. But the devil will be in the details."
Cortines acknowledged that his plan is modeled on one released last October by Supt. Ruben Zacarias, who is scheduled to step down from his post Jan. 15. Zacarias' plan, which was scant on detail, would have created a dozen sub-districts.
Cortines' plan would establish a new system for staffing the smaller districts. Hundreds of employees who work downtown would be assigned to two- or three-year terms in various districts, he said.
There will probably be job losses.
"I'm going to make every effort to avoid layoffs," Cortines said. "But if I have to make the hard decisions, I'll make them."
Deputy Mayor Noelia Rodriguez said, "This plan looks at first glance like a sound blueprint for the permanent superintendent to build on. And it validates that the problems in the district are symptoms of a more general problem involving management," she added. "But moving from proposal to performance will be the ultimate measure of success."
Surveying the Los Angeles skyline from a window in his office, Cortines would not argue with that.
"It's going to be a real fun roller-coaster around here for the next few months," he said. "But it's only the beginning. Wait till you see the rest of my plan."
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Ramon C. Cortines on Tuesday proposed a restructuring plan that divides the Los Angeles Unified School District into 11 mini-districts. The district has established borders but has not determined street boundaries. The maps shows the sub-districts and the high schools in them.
Source: Los Angeles Unified School District
School Proposal by the Numbers
The mini-districts proposed by Ramon C. Cortines would vary in size, based on a variety of factors, such as the number of students living in poverty.
Number of % of students in free/ Distirct Enrollment* schools reduced-cost lunch program A 67,971 68 51% B 77,441 68 79% C 68,624 73 62% D 57,803 76 49% E 67,952 61 80% F 61,182 57 79% G 60,947 54 84% H 68,877 56 89% I 50,727 43 86% J 62,114 37 88% K 67,187 70 65%
* Based on October 1999 enrollment
Source: Los Angeles Unified School District