IT HAS BEEN a year since The Times ran this marvelous front-page photo of our mayor. I remember seeing it and exclaiming, right into my morning coffee, "Wow!"
What a tale of urban renewal it tells! To wit: Tony V ... picked up a drill. Until Tony V arrived at City Hall, did any mayor even think to just pick up a drill? Mayors previous to Tony V were not even aware a drill was needed. Jeans, too, they did not own. Or a simple T-shirt. Such garb was unfamiliar to them. But not to our Tony. Let's go, L.A.! Together we can do it!
And, in fact, the photo did mark a happy occasion. It was taken during Big Sunday, L.A.'s annual citywide day of service. Last year, more than 32,000 volunteers volunteered at nearly 250 nonprofits. Big Sunday 2007 is this weekend -- a catalyst for many positive relationships that will continue throughout the year. At the same time, as its founders suggest, the beauty is, if you roll up your sleeves, you really can get a lot done in just one day.
Contrast this giddy moment with that other, less successful mayoral fix-up project -- rescuing L.A.'s public schools. If only it had all proved as simple as embracing Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez in a laughing bear hug! (Another memorable front-page photo, remember?) To get control of the LAUSD via Assembly Bill 1381, Tony didn't bring his drill to Sacramento, he brought his toothbrush! His jammies!
Unfortunately, as our mayor (and close readers of this paper) should know by now, the Los Angeles Unified School District is a gelatinous Borg whose essence is less discernible through crisp, image-making moments, Capitol slumber parties and campaign promises than through endlessly snarled court decisions, civil codes, state laws and charter restrictions.
Indeed, if Tony wanted to wield his drill at a school, we can just imagine the district's mood-puncturing objections:
"Records indicate that your drill is not OSHA-approved."
"Hey Tony! Don't look now, but you're about to drill into a reservoir of trapped toxic gas."
"While the mayor drills for free, District 3 union workers lose medical benefits."
I gently mock; but citizens of Los Angeles, in a way, we are all Tony V. Like our mayor, many of us will get a well-deserved Big Sunday adrenalin rush tomorrow (my family is helping build a lemonade stand; we love lemonade, we love underprivileged kids, it's a win/win!). But when confronting the school district, even the most well-intentioned Good Samaritans can find their wings clipped.
Recently, a mother at my daughter's school wanted to volunteer her time to start an after-school knitting club. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls around her were possessed by knitting fever (picture glasses glittering with excitement). They couldn't wait to make scarves, bags, hats.
But no. Battle-scarred LAUSD veterans went into red alert. No knitting club! No! Some fourth-grader stabs her finger with a needle and it's a multimillion-dollar lawsuit!
Because I did not duck quickly enough when the California PTA insurance guideline booklet was flung, it fell to me to look for possible (yarn-friendly) loopholes. And yes, if the PTA sponsored the activity, interestingly enough, the state PTA insurance \o7did\f7 cover everything from crafts to "cow bingo" (apparently a beloved old PTA fundraising chestnut in which players bet money on where a cow is going to poop -- how delightfully Midwestern. Who knew?)
But even more fascinating is what school activities \o7aren't \f7allowed. These include donkey basketball, dart games, dunk tanks, fireworks, monster trucks, pyrotechnics, stage diving, air shows and yes. . . human cannonballs.
"Human cannonball" is listed, without irony, in the official California PTA "do not do" guidelines. Which means, by inference, some freewheeling parent group once -- \o7once\f7 -- eagerly offered it up: "Human cannonball spring fundraiser." Festoon with bunting, what could go wrong?
As an LAUSD parent trying to Do Good, I, like Tony V., am certainly no fan of the bureaucracy. But at the same time, I've come to see that, as with any truly democratic organization, rules and regulations are part of the continual balancing act between what's good for the community and the (human cannonballing) individual. Public schools -- and public school systems -- are, after all, living human organisms, full of diametrically opposed personalities. (Indeed, sometimes public school life can feel like living in a commune of divorced parents trying to cooperate for the sake of the children while their home is undergoing constant remodeling. If you're lucky!)
Because of the complexity, moving the LAUSD into a new era will take more than a quick swing of a hammer, the stroke of a pen or the embrace of a buddy. Would-be reformers will only truly get their chance if they come live with the Borg as we are, for a year, a month, a week. Or at least, for our very busy mayor, as Principal for a Day?
I see a photo op!
Do bring your toothbrush.
Don't bring a drill.