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It Takes a Community

November 10, 2003

Rap impresario Sean "P. Diddy" Combs helped raise $2 million for New York public schools with his high-profile New York City Marathon run last weekend. Meanwhile, last week in Los Angeles, Barry K. Woods, owner of a North Hollywood graffiti control firm, dug into his own pocket to donate $20,000 to the Los Angeles Unified School District to save its academic decathlon banquet, after a corporate sponsor pulled out and a fund-raising drive netted only $35.

It ought to be embarrassing that a community that rivals New York City in celebrity and wealth is allowing its public schools to languish in such a philanthropic drought.

With a budget tied so tightly to state revenues that it shifts unpredictably from year to year, Los Angeles Unified has long been trapped in a cycle of cut-and-recover that makes it tough to get out ahead of student needs. Teachers and parents often step into the breach, paying for everything from crayons to coaches to air conditioning. And help occasionally comes from a smattering of celebrities: Anne and Kirk Douglas have built playgrounds at hundreds of schools; pro football player Keyshawn Johnson has funded athletics at his alma mater, Dorsey High; Jackson Browne staged a benefit concert that raised $150,000 for the music program at Washington Prep High.

But compare that with the haul in New York City, where a free Central Park concert in September by the Dave Matthews Band drew 85,000 people and raised $2 million in corporate cash for that city's 1.1-million-student public school system.

Here, it's been left to a few reform-minded businessmen like former Mayor Richard Riordan and financier Eli Broad to bankroll districtwide initiatives.

Certainly the Big Apple has some advantages. Its school district is run by the mayor -- who oversees its budget, its board and its boss -- and is in the midst of an ambitious reform campaign hailed as a model of vision and creativity. Caroline Kennedy signed on last year as its fund-raising guru, at a salary of $1 a year, and has already attracted more than $50 million in donations, not only reaching out to business titans and celebs but also appealing to a sense of communal responsibility and civic pride, even among the city's well-heeled whose children don't go to public schools. That would be a tough sell here, in a city where the school district is best known for its failures and held up by many as an example of bureaucratic incompetence.

But Los Angeles public schools are trying hard, even if their small successes are often overshadowed by bad news about campus violence, budget cuts, overcrowding and maddening red tape. But for all that remains wrong with the LAUSD, its failures are those of adults, not the district's 728,000 kids. They deserve better.

That's why the LAUSD ought to take a lesson from New York and the 4,000 other districts nationwide that use fund-raising foundations to entice private donors to support efforts to improve education. A well-run private organization could ensure that the cash raised was spent directly on students' needs, not lost in layers of management.

And wouldn't it be nice if West Coast rappers followed the lead of P. Diddy and Jay-Z (who pledged $25,000 to the marathon run) and kicked off their own campaign to bless schoolkids here with a little bling-bling?

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