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The Major Problem at LAUSD Is Poor Planning

November 13, 2000|BRYAN L. STEELE | Bryan L. Steele, a former teacher, is the author of "Road to Belmont" just released by Foreshadow Press

An ongoing lawsuit seeking a level playing field between urban and suburban districts as they compete for state school construction dollars is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.

On its face, the argument that urban districts have a harder time competing for state school construction dollars than their suburban counterparts--now being made in a Los Angeles Superior Court case, Godinez vs. Davis--makes sense. After all, it's harder to build in the cramped and often toxic environment of a city than in the wide-open spaces of suburbia. How can urban districts ever hope to compete when the complexity of the process is so stacked against them?

But eligibility for these funds is not a function of complexity but of planning. Simply stated, officials of any district can plan ahead so when bond money becomes available they are ready to bid.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is leading the charge in favor of permanently changing state policy to weigh the funding process in favor of large urban districts. But the LAUSD has a dismal record of preparing for state school construction dollars. When I was appointed to the staff of a California legislative committee to investigate the Belmont Learning Complex, not only did the district's real estate and asset management branch fail to have one new high school project ready for future state bond funding, but it didn't even have a list of properties it owned. In other words, the LAUSD was chronically disorganized with no plan for the future.

Compounding this is the way the LAUSD handled another court case, Crawford vs. Board of Education, a 1962 federal lawsuit designed to eliminate the inequity between rich and poor neighborhood schools. In 1982, Crawford resulted in a consent decree that annually provided the LAUSD with additional state funding to help balance this inequity. According to last year's adjusted final budget, the state gave the LAUSD $460 million in new money beyond the regular funding the district receives yearly for each child.

The first order of business specified by U.S. District Judge Robert B. Lopez in 1982 was to use these funds to build new schools, as overcrowding was the No. 1 problem plaguing inner-city schools even 20 years ago. But rather than spending the nearly half a billion dollars on new school construction each year, it was used and continues to be used for teacher and administrative salaries.

The LAUSD justified its actions in the name of overcrowding. Claiming that turning schools into the year-round model was a good-faith response to overcrowding, the LAUSD argued that every penny spent on the additional costs of running a school year-round was in keeping with the consent decree. Since the year-round model requires additional teacher and administrative hours, all those expenses could be charged against the state's program.

As a former teacher who worked in a poor-performing inner-city school on the year-round model, I can say without qualification that this form of education delivery is detrimental to student success. By pushing 30% more children through the same school facility, the year-round model actually shortens the number of hours a student attends school each year while lengthening the school day. The result is burned-out teachers and students who are so tired by the end of the day that staying after school to give and receive additional instruction is a rare event.

Adding an element of cynicism is the success of LAUSD lobbyists to influence new legislation in response to Crawford. In 1983, a Senate bill sponsored by then state Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara) rewrote sections of the state educational code to prohibit the use of Crawford funds for constructing new schools. Had only half of that money been used for new school construction over the past two decades, there would be no shortage of new schools in Los Angeles today.

LAUSD officials were motivated to play such apparent shenanigans because it allowed them to push 30% more inner-city students through the same school buildings without incurring any additional drain on the general budget. The district simply ignored the need to build new schools because converting existing campuses to year-round schedules was otherwise financially advantageous.

Now that its woeful lack of preparation, if not intentional malfeasance, has seen the light of day, the LAUSD is attempting to use the new suit, Godinez, to permanently change policy to compensate for decades of poor management. The LAUSD clearly needs a short-term solution to its problems, such as a temporary waiver of restrictions against using office space for classrooms. But it is a mistake to permanently alter policy based on the past blunders of questionably motivated bureaucracies.

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