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L.A. Unified, City Leaders Working Together on Issues for Sake of Schools

September 12, 2002|MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 2001 races for Los Angeles City Council and mayor, then-school board member Caprice Young couldn't believe what she was hearing.

The candidates portrayed L.A. schools and their leaders as incompetent and helpless, and promised voters that they would "save the schools." Didn't the politicians, she wondered, realize that they had no direct authority over education?

Now, more than a year later, Young said she has been pleasantly surprised that "they've stopped the bashing and started the partnership."

From funding after-school programs to redesigning carpool drop-off points, and from combating truancy to tearing down crack houses near campuses, the city of Los Angeles is cooperating more than ever with the Los Angeles Unified School District, an independent entity that welcomes the help.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 507 words Type of Material: Correction
School authority--A story in the California section Thursday about cooperation between Los Angeles City Hall and the Los Angeles Unified School District implied that the mayors of New York and Chicago used their own authority to gain more control of their cities' education systems. As in some other U.S. cities, both mayors strongly pushed for such control, but their respective state legislatures awarded it to them.

"Those of us on the City Council are always being asked what we can do about schools," said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who heads the council's first Education and Neighborhoods Committee. "The old answer used to be, 'That's not our jurisdiction. That's the school board's.' That's not the answer anymore."

It seems logical that a city's government would look out for, if not oversee, its schools. Mayors in New York, Chicago and other large cities recently have made changes to give them more authority over education. But in Los Angeles, that has not been the case historically.

The division between City Hall and the school district--which have separate powers, budgets and leaders--has made for turf battles over the years, Young said.

The elections in the last year of a new mayor, city attorney and enough first-timers to make up a majority of the City Council, plus recent additions to the Board of Education and the superintendent of schools office, have spurred this new partnership, officials said.

Mayor James K. Hahn has appointed the city's first deputy mayor for education, Barbara Sandoval, who is helping the school district speed through its massive building campaign while urging the district to design its sports fields and other campus features with non-students in mind.

"We're focused on this to maximize resources and leverage the opportunities," Sandoval said. "It's time for a new way of doing business."

Just last week, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo unveiled another city-district cooperative effort: a program to discourage students from ditching class by tracking and counseling habitual truants.

Standing next to him at Mulholland Middle School in Van Nuys were Young--now the Board of Education's president--and board members Julie Korenstein and Mike Lansing. Also on hand was Supt. Roy Romer, once an elected official himself (he was formerly governor of Colorado).

Romer has expanded the district's legislative lobbying office to include a deputy in Los Angeles who works only with local government. "I just think there's a lot more [to] gain if we focus upon mutual collaboration," Romer said. "You do it because it's just such a natural."

No one is saying all politics have been put aside; the cooperation is not always seamless. At Delgadillo's news conference last week, school officials panicked when he gravely told a phalanx of TV cameras that 100,000 students are absent each day--it's more like 50,000, the district said. Nevertheless, the city and the school district cite numerous recent efforts--big and small--that indicate a new relationship. They include:

* Use of the city's Ethics Commission to administer a new ethics program for the school district and those who lobby it.

* Expansion of L.A.'s BEST, a 14-year-old program in which the school district, city and private sector collaborate to provide after-school tutoring and recreational activities for 18,000 students at more than 100 schools.

* Use of classrooms, auditoriums and athletic fields for neighborhood meetings and activities.

A cooperative, congenial relationship with the city is crucial if the district is to plan and build 100 schools in coming years to relieve crowded classrooms, district officials said.

As L.A. Unified scours the city for suitable sites, often using eminent domain to obtain property, district leaders said the support of city politicians is essential.

"Officially, the school district can go out and do whatever it wants, but as we've seen from the past, that's also not a good way to be a member of the community," said Glenn Gritzner, Romer's assistant for local governmental affairs.

Romer, the school board and city officials use the word "community" to describe what public schools should be: centers of learning for children, but also for people of all ages, for recreation, health care and many other functions.

Council members and other city leaders have no power to shake up the curriculum or hire teachers, but they do have the authority to improve just about everything up to the schoolhouse door.

"My feeling is that there is nothing that tells kids more directly how much or how little we value them than the quality of their surroundings," said Councilman Jack Weiss.

At Sherman Oaks Elementary School in Weiss' district, the morning drop-off used to be chaos as parents and children competed for the road with commuters using a shortcut to work. Drivers sped, illegally turned, illegally parked.

In the last year, Weiss' office worked with police and the school to develop a new drop-off plan involving volunteers and more diligent ticketing of offenders.

That immediately solved the problems, said former Principal Tom Stekol.

"The little things are the big things in this regard," Young said. "We're not out trumpeting some great strategic plan. We're just doing it, and that's the way it should be done."

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