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Racial, economic rift opens at Arts High School

A disagreement among parents raises questions about artistic excellence and ethnic diversity.

June 20, 2007|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

Whose school is it, anyway?

Is the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts the province of accomplished young dancers, actors, artists and musicians aimed at professional arts careers -- or is it a place for talented but untutored youngsters, whose promise might unfold in its conservatory atmosphere?

The question has transformed a parochial dispute over a teacher's competence into a bitter public feud that touches on questions of race, privilege and opportunity.

In the process, it has unmasked agonizing racial and economic divisions on a campus struggling to balance a vision of pure artistic excellence with the value of ethnic diversity.

In the conflict's wake are bewildered students, angry parents and embarrassed county officials, worried about the future of the public arts school, which has operated for more than 20 years on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles.

At its center is Lois Hunter, head of the school's dance and theater departments. Her backers say the longtime educator is a passionate advocate for underprivileged kids. Her detractors consider her an arrogant pawn of a tone-deaf county bureaucracy.

Hunter's critics say her mismanagement of the two departments has driven out good teachers, jeopardized students' futures and alienated the school's visiting corps of professional actors and dancers. For months leading up to last weekend's graduation ceremonies, they pilloried Hunter in public, circulating a thick dossier of complaints and criticizing her at meetings of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Their allegations run the gamut: Classes are overcrowded and unorganized. Dance classrooms have no first-aid kits or icepacks to treat injuries. Rehearsal schedules change without notice. Student discipline has been arbitrary and inconsistent. Favored students were given choice roles. Prestigious theater competitions were ignored.

Hunter is "horribly under-qualified ... consistently arrogant, dismissive [and] rude to visiting professionals," theater parent Steven Whitney wrote in the 500-page file assembled by leaders of the parent fundraising group, Friends of Arts High, which donates more than $100,000 to the school each year. They say school officials ignored their complaints for months.

"We called. We wrote letters. We sent e-mails. And got nothing back," said parent Pat Lentz. "They want to take our money and they want us to shut up."

As the conflict escalated, it became a clash of egos and agendas so intense, it strained student friendships, spawned ugly rumors and conspiracy theories and split parents into opposing factions: "concerned" parents lobbying for Hunter's ouster, and "supportive" parents rallying to her defense.

At meetings, parents were "like a screaming mob," said "concerned" parent Jackie Monkarsh. "I've never seen something so disturbing.... Children were yelled at. Parents started to cry. It was horrible."

Hunter declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an e-mailed statement she attributed the complaints to a small corps of parents unhappy with her efforts to promote diversity. "Change is always difficult for a few people when their focus is on narrow, outdated thinking and actions that attempt to maintain the status quo," she said.

That Hunter is black and most of her detractors are white has injected race into the messy debate. Her supporters call the campaign a "lynching" and accuse complaining parents of opposing Hunter because she won't kowtow to their demands.

"This is all against Ms. Hunter because she is black," said Aurora Reyes, whose daughter is a dance student. "These are rich parents of privileged kids who want to run the school like a private school."

Parents from the "concerned" camp bristle at the accusations. Several in their group are black.

"It gets tricky," Monkarsh said. "Once you start saying 'racism,' white people can't come out looking good.... This is not a race thing. This is about incompetence."

But parents, teachers, students and administrators all agree that the controversy has forced them to confront uncomfortable divisions at the school, which draws its 550 students from school districts across the county.

Many parents are arts professionals wealthy enough to tap outside networks to instruct and advise their children. "Kids go to their agents to check out what their teachers say and find out the teachers have it wrong," said "concerned" parent Susan Galeas, co-president of fundraising group.

Some less-advantaged parents say they are treated condescendingly. Reyes said that when she took chicken with black beans -- a family favorite -- to the group's potluck last year, "they wouldn't even eat my food."

On both sides are proverbial stage parents, tuned to every slight and miscue. "Everybody is a critic," says Principal Paul Gothold.

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