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Critics Blast School District Breakup Plan

Many decry timing and fear more bureaucracy in proposal by L.A. Unified board president to form as many as 30 smaller jurisdictions.

February 07, 2003|Erika Hayasaki and David pierson | Times Staff Writers

To many parents and educators, Los Angeles Unified school board President Caprice Young's pitch to break the sprawling district into as many as 30 smaller districts has emotional appeal. With 748,000 children, 85,000 employees, 677 campuses and a $9.8-billion budget, the nation's second-largest school district can be vast and intimidating.

"There is definitely a disconnect" between the district and the community, said Stephanie Carter, who led a failed campaign in 2001 to break San Fernando Valley schools away from Los Angeles Unified and form two separate Valley districts. "There's such red tape to go do something simple."

But sentiment won't be enough. If it gets past the talking phase, Young's breakup plan will face tough political and administrative barriers. Her opponent in next month's election, former teacher Jon Lauritzen, portrays Young's proposal as pandering to a new San Fernando Valley constituency she has gained with remapping.

Some other parents, teachers and education experts have deeper fears that any such plan would create more bureaucracy without helping students. In addition, they say, Young's timing is unfortunate, so soon after the failure of the municipal secession movement and the district's victory in garnering voter approval for a massive campus construction program. Also, with improved test scores in elementary schools, the district's academics seem to be improving.

Mark Slavkin, who served on the school board from 1989 to 1997, said he understands the attraction of smaller districts. "Everyone agrees, if you started over again, no one would start with a district this big," said Slavkin, who heads education programs at the downtown Music Center. "But now that we have what we have, the political and legal issues are insurmountable."

He and other educators stressed how divisive and difficult it would be to create 10 to 30 smaller districts, each still larger than many other urban school systems.

Each district would need its own superintendent, board members and teachers.

Resources would have to be divided fairly, union contracts renegotiated, elections held, transportation systems altered and administrative oversight established. Districtwide magnet programs might be disrupted and ethnic ratios thrown off.

Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said that "if all we're going to do is replicate 30 little Kremlins, it's not a good idea. It would be a major difficulty. How the heck would you monitor those guys?"

Jeannie Oakes, director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, said debate about a breakup would be an unwelcome distraction. "It's a politically controversial and engaging issue, and the energies that should be devoted to solving larger problems could get very deflected into local battles over whether there should be 10 or 15" mini-districts, she said.

But another UCLA scholar, management professor Bill Ouchi, is a fan of Young's idea. He has studied the district and is working with the Alliance for Student Achievement to create a charter school network that could one day enroll 50,000 Los Angeles-area students. That charter concept grew in part out of the conviction that the district is too unwieldy and is not meeting students' needs.

"The concept that Caprice is putting forward is the kind of dramatic and powerful step that it is going to take to rouse the LAUSD out of its current stupor," Ouchi said. "The system is too centralized, too top-heavy."

Two years ago, Los Angeles Unified administratively was broken up into 11 sub-districts, but most major decisions are still made at the central headquarters.

Young insists her idea is not geared to just winning Valley votes for her second term. To avoid confusion, she said, she deliberately waited until after last spring's cityhood secession elections for Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

Young concedes that the district has made strides building schools and improving test scores, but says it will always fall short in its current huge form.

"We can't just ignore it," she said. "We have to have smaller learning environments and smaller school districts. Right now, if our superintendent makes a decision, he has to go through five layers of bureaucracy to get to parents."

Young said she opposed the 2001 plan for two independent Valley school districts, each with about 100,000 students, because that would not have benefited children districtwide.

The California Department of Education blocked the proposal, finding that Los Angeles Unified could not function without Valley taxes, campuses and programs. That same year, voters in Carson rejected a plan to leave the Los Angeles district.

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