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Schools Still an Issue in City Votes

Secession: Poll shows many are unaware ballot measures won't affect L.A. Unified, and both sides may benefit from that confusion.

July 08, 2002|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Voter confusion about whether the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession bids on the Nov. 5 ballot would break up the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District gives both sides in the campaign a potent weapon, strategists say.

A Los Angeles Times Poll last week found that three of four respondents either mistakenly believed secession would split the 736,000-student district, which includes the Valley and Hollywood, or did not know one way or the other.

Los Angeles city officials say the public's lack of information exposes a crucial weakness in the secession message. They argue that voters will abandon the breakaway movement once they realize the measures do not apply to the school district, which is frequently criticized for low academic performance, overcrowding and a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy.

Secessionists say voters should support the breakup as a first step toward severing relations with the nation's second-largest school district. As long as Los Angeles stays whole, they contend, so will the district. Valley and Hollywood cities could make a stronger case for breaking up the district, the secessionists add. Last December, the State Board of Education unanimously killed a plan for two separate Valley school districts.

Voters seem to want clarity.

"I don't know what's happening with the schools," said Patricia Lombardo, 59, a longtime resident of Panorama City, a working-class neighborhood in the heart of the Valley. The secession proposals, she said, "don't make any sense if the school district isn't included." Because it's not, she plans to vote against secession.

To be successful, Lombardo said, a new Valley city would have to make education a priority. "It is one of the most important issues facing a city."

Those opposed to a municipal divorce accuse secessionists of confusing the school issue to spark momentum for a lagging campaign. The poll found that Valley secession is favored by 52% of voters in the Valley and 38% citywide, while 61% of Hollywood voters oppose cityhood for their area.

"The pro-secessionists are trying to make a covert effort to tie the school district with [city] secession," said Kam Kuwata, who is managing Mayor James K. Hahn's campaign against a breakup. "The two have nothing to do with each other.... It's dishonest of the secessionists."

Kuwata said Hahn plans to eliminate the confusion during upcoming months. "Where secessionists confuse," he said, "we'll clarify."

But political consultants said the school issue stands to benefit secession proponents, not the mayor. Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political analyst, said Hahn will have to take care not to sound like a cheerleader for the district. "He can't say, 'Keep L.A. together, so we can keep the school district together,' " Hoffenblum said.

Secessionists say they separate school and city issues, although most have long supported efforts to divide LAUSD, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other agencies that they say have grown too big.

Jeff Brain, president of Valley VOTE, the group spearheading secession, noted that advocates for chopping up L.A. Unified already tried to get the issue on the ballot. He said the State Board of Education would be more likely to call an election if the Valley were its own city. "We encourage those who want a new school district to support city secession," Brain said. "We tried it the other way, and it didn't work. Now, we might have a chance."

Hollywood resident Rose Marie d'Amato, 47, agreed. "With a better city, it makes sense," said the secession supporter.

However, forming new municipalities is no guarantee that the state would approve carving up L.A. Unified, which serves 27 cities in addition to Los Angeles. The last community to successfully break away from L.A. Unified was Torrance in 1948. And in the last few years, Carson voters rejected a bid to split off from LAUSD, and the state declined to put a similar proposal on the ballot in Lomita.

About two-thirds of The Times Poll respondents said the school district issue would have no effect on their secession vote.

"A lot of people consider [LAUSD] as one of the public agencies that has caused the city the most problems," said Thomas Mayer, a 36-year-old Westwood resident who opposes secession, partly because of the schools.

Mayer admonished leaders of both campaigns for failing to clarify the issue. "We need to be aware," he said.

Until late last year, separate campaigns for city and school secession were under way in the Valley, and often converged. Valley VOTE latched onto the efforts to dismantle L.A. Unified as a way to build alliances for its cause.

Last week, Gene La Pietra, leader of Hollywood's cityhood bid, said that secessionists will soon collect signatures calling for the community's schools to split from L.A. Unified.

La Pietra, a millionaire nightclub owner, who wants to be mayor of a new Hollywood city, said he hopes that such a proposal will be placed on the ballot next year, an unlikely goal, many say.

State law requires school secessionists to collect signatures of 8% of those who voted in the proposed district during the last gubernatorial election. Once the signatures are verified, the 11-member Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization would study the issue, hold public hearings and recommend to the state whether an election should be held.

State officials would then hold hearings before deciding whether to put the matter before voters.

Stephanie Carter, a Tarzana resident who led the failed campaign for two Valley school districts, said the political will for splitting L.A. Unified is weak. "Unless it's there," she said, "I don't think it will happen."

David Lemon of Sylmar sends his 7-year-old daughter to a private school because he believes L.A. Unified is academically inferior. He could support school secession, but shattering the city into three makes him cringe. And he's confused.

"I'm not really aware of all the details," he said.

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