Backers of a plan to carve two autonomous San Fernando Valley school districts from Los Angeles Unified underestimated a breakup's fiscal impact on both the proposed new districts and what would be left of the LAUSD. Equally significant--and not addressed in the feasibility report issued by an independent consultant last week--is whether they overestimated the proposal's benefits.
Would breaking up the district actually improve education? The Valley group that collected enough signatures to trigger the breakup process takes for granted that it would. Smaller districts, say members of Finally Restoring Excellence in Education, or FREE, would lead to greater community support, which in turn would enhance student achievement and school accountability.
If only it were that easy.
Consider the number and complexity of the LAUSD's problems. Sheer size and an entrenched bureaucracy may be among them, but so are overcrowded schools, underachieving students, high dropout rates, a shortage of teachers and textbooks, and barriers caused by the 85 languages and dialects spoken in the district. Breaking up the district would not make these challenges go away. But a breakup could add new ones. According to a consultant hired by the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization--the first step in evaluating FREE's petition--the proposed Valley districts face significant financial shortfalls.
The feasibility study found that the plan did not meet the state's conditions for district reorganization in two of nine key areas: sufficient funding and ethnic integration. One affects the other: Because breakup would leave the LAUSD's dwindling population of white students concentrated in Valley schools, the new districts would suffer a substantial loss of desegregation funds.
Breaking up the LAUSD would also leave at least 8,000 students who are now bused to the Valley with no place to go. Where would the LAUSD, already strapped for money, even find land for so many more schools in the crowded neighborhoods downtown, along the Wilshire corridor and in the southeast and South-Central areas of the city?
It's worth noting that both the new and old districts would start out with budget shortfalls, according to the consultant's report, even given today's boom times. Imagine what this could mean during the next economic downturn.
The county committee will use the consultant's evaluation to decide how to advise the state Board of Education this week on whether to put the breakup proposal to a public vote. In making its recommendation, the committee should weigh not just the plan's feasibility but its claims about improving education. It should also consider how a breakup campaign and election would divert energy from LAUSD reforms already in progress.
With the backing of a new, change-oriented board, interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has decreed a sweeping reorganization, including forming 11 mini-districts, three of them in the Valley. Critics insist the mini-districts won't be independent, but why not see? If they fail to break free of the district's entrenched bureaucracy, then an orderly plan for dividing the massive district would already be in place, one that addresses the entire LAUSD, not just a portion, and one that has an educational rationale behind it.