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L.A. school board lets Birmingham High go charter

It was the first action by the newly constituted board, but the members weren't particularly enthusiastic about the move, on which they had little choice.

July 02, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg

A newly constituted Los Angeles school board took its first action Wednesday by giving up control of its largest campus, allowing Birmingham High to convert itself into a charter.

The action, which took place after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for a "revolution" in city schools, followed months of bitter infighting at the school in the Lake Balboa section of the San Fernando Valley, and was a blow to teachers union leaders and others who had advocated the simultaneous creation of a union-sponsored school on the Birmingham campus. The charter will begin its first school year Aug. 19.

New board members Steve Zimmer and Nury Martinez admitted being unprepared to vote on the issue, which stirred deep passions among teachers, parents and students. Zimmer said he felt as though he were "on my Star Trek maiden voyage," and Martinez complained that she had been briefed about the months-long saga only the day before. Zimmer ultimately abstained, while Martinez joined four other board members in voting for the charter.

Trustee Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte dissented, saying she supported the concept but wanted more time to heal the wounds on the campus and prepare plans for the union-backed school.

"I do not think more time is going to heal the wounds on that campus," said board member Tamar Galatzan, a graduate of the school who represents the Birmingham area. She said it was important to act quickly.

"My community is crying out for choices," she said. "My community is crying out for innovation."

She added that she was deeply frustrated that the district can't encourage greater innovation in its non-charter schools.

"We tell schools, 'Sorry, you have to leave to innovate.' " She turned to Supt. Ramon C. Cortines: "Mr. Superintendent, we have to change that."

Change was the theme of the day. Villaraigosa spoke at a swearing-in ceremony for the two new members and board President Monica Garcia, who was reelected in March (and who won another term as board chairwoman Wednesday). The mayor, whose first term was marked by a failed effort to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, vowed to work in partnership with the school board in his second term.

"We should all want a revolution," he said. Referring to the new members, who replaced retiring trustees Marlene Canter and Julie Korenstein, Villaraigosa said: "We have a great opportunity with the election of these individuals. There is now a powerful majority for change. Not incremental change, but transformational change."

That was also the theme of members of the newly formed Parent Revolution and the Lemonade Initiative, two groups trying to organize public school parents.

"We can't take it anymore," declared Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, "when we read in the L.A. Times about child molesters -- child molesters! -- being put back in the classroom to teach our kids."

His group, which is affiliated with four charter organizations, promises parents that if more than 50% sign up, Parent Revolution will guarantee that their school will dramatically improve within three years or face competition from a charter. He told the board that more than half the parents at feeder schools for Garfield High on the Eastside and Mark Twain Middle in Venice had recently signed the petitions.

Given the circumstances at Birmingham, the board appeared more resigned than eager to approve its charter petition. Under state law, districts are required to approve charters if the organizations submit a valid plan. One leading opponent of the charter, banker Steven Shapiro, said the new school's budget did not add up and could leave Birmingham with a $2.5-million deficit; but district staff said they had closely analyzed the budget and believed it was sound.

Shapiro implored the district to wait until plans for the union-backed school were ready, but the board asked Birmingham Principal Marcia Coates only to "think about" eventually giving it space on her campus. The board did require that the Daniel Pearl Journalism Magnet, a school-within-a-school at Birmingham, remain a district school. Sports and extracurricular activities will be shared.

Adding to the board's uneasiness was a recent incident involving comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, of "Borat" fame, who posed for somewhat kinky magazine photos with members of the Birmingham football team. Board members roundly excoriated the school's leadership for allowing the photo shoot; Garcia called it "a violation of trust regarding the children on that campus."

Cortines said he had handed down discipline against Coates and Athletic Director Rick Prizant but conceded that nothing would happen because the two would no longer be district employees. Coates brought, but didn't read, prepared remarks conceding that allowing the photos was "embarrassing to the district and to myself, and not a decision that I am proud of." But she said that the request she had approved was "age-appropriate and non-controversial" and that she wasn't aware of the content until the photos were published in GQ magazine.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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