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Name that school

April 03, 2006

LOS ANGELES SCHOOLS HAVE so many real things to worry about -- dropout rates and test scores, to name two -- that the brewing brouhaha over the naming of a new high school seems a needless distraction. Two groups of advocates are pushing to have their respective Latino notable honored when the school in the central part of the city opens this fall: the late Rep. Edward R. Roybal and the late labor leader Miguel Contreras. Both men died last year. Both men are worthy of honor. And supporters of both men contacted the district at roughly the same time.

Now, in a district that has 150 new schools in various stages of construction, all of them in need of names, you'd think there would be plenty to go around. But not all schools are created equal, and schools themselves are subject to the three cardinal rules of real estate: location, location, location.

The coveted school is at the precise site of Contreras' first office in L.A.; it's also in Roybal's former district, centrally located, and it will have a social justice academy that Roybal supporters believe perfectly emblemizes their man. Although the pro-Contreras camp, which naturally includes Big Labor, is pushing for Roybal to have an alternative East L.A. school named after him, one of the subplots here is that both groups want their Latino icon to have a school outside of East L.A. named after him.

Politics aside, the reason this squabble is threatening to get out of hand is the school board's habit of micromanaging and the district administration's difficulty in coordinating its right and left hands.

After the Roybal camp contacted the school administration, it received a letter from Chief Operating Officer Dan Isaacs, who normally handles these matters. He outlined the naming procedure, which includes a series of meetings at which supporters, parents, students and others would give their views.

The Contreras camp contacted board President Marlene Canter, who didn't know about the Roybal proposal and thought the Contreras idea made sense. She told the superintendent's office and was planning to waive the normal procedures to get it done. The board has done that with no trouble at a few other schools. Canter also believes that the policy for naming schools is a cumbersome leftover from the days before the big construction boom.

Canter may be right about the need to streamline the process. It also should be delegated to the right staff, or a committee of the board that includes other community leaders. But there should be no second-guessing from other quarters or ad hoc moves by any one board member. And until the board changes the naming policy, it should honor the one it has. Canter should have told Contreras' supporters to contact Isaacs, the man in charge.

Now the Roybal people feel bamboozled, promised a process that may be short-circuited. The board faces the prospect of emotional and contentious testimony at its Tuesday meeting over which man is more deserving of the honor, an argument that threatens to dishonor both of them.

The board needs to come up with a better process and stick to it. The alternative is ending up with nothing but numbered schools.

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