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L.A.'s kids deserve better from Trutanich

The after-school enrichment program LA's Best sorely needs the $100,000 the city attorney has not yet donated, despite his pledge to do so if he didn't finish his first term. He's now running for D.A.

March 07, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Children in the LA's Best After School Enrichment Program participate in a yoga class at Leo Politi Elementary School in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Children in the LA's Best After School Enrichment Program participate… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

I was just trying to help L.A. City Atty. Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich keep a campaign promise recently when I went looking for an airplane that would fly around downtown with a sign reading: "Nuch is a liar." And now it occurs to me that there's another promise I should help him keep: His pledge to also donate $100,000 to a program that helps kids.

That would be LA's Best After School Enrichment Program, which serves 28,000 students at 186 schools.

It turns out Trutanich's check has not yet arrived.

For those who need a little background, way back in 2008, Trutanich came up with a clever gimmick while running for city attorney against Jack Weiss. He invited Weiss to join him in signing a pledge that the winner of the race would complete a first term as city attorney and run for a second term as well, rather than bolting early to pursue higher political ambitions.

Weiss didn't sign the pledge, but Trutanich did, vowing to donate a hundred grand to LA's Best and take out ads calling himself a liar if he broke his promise. And now he's running for district attorney, a year before completing his first term as city attorney.

"We have not received a check," Carla Sanger, president and chief executive of LA's Best, told me Monday.

On Feb. 13, Sanger wrote a letter to Trutanich saying "we are grateful to have allies such as yourself … and we hope we can count on your support and involvement as we continue to enrich the lives of children in Los Angeles."

A $100,000 donation would be a godsend, Sanger said, because deep budget shortfalls are expected in the nonprofit after-school program that was begun in 1988 by Mayor Tom Bradley. The city's contribution alone could be $125,000 smaller this year, she said, and the wallop from the state could be even more staggering, making private donations like the one Trutanich promised all the more critical.

Maybe the city attorney has bigger things to worry about these days, given the embarrassing little expose in Sunday's paper by Times staffers David Sarno and Jack Leonard. The Trutanich campaign touted the massive number of YouTube viewers who checked out a campaign video, but then had to admit, when asked directly, that there was a hidden reason for all that traffic —- the Trutanich camp had hired an online marketing company to generate the action.

I'm not sure how a candidate can give priority to a campaign expense like that while leaving the city's most underprivileged children waiting for what's been promised them, especially given Trutanich's comments about gang-intervention and after-school enrichment as keys to crime reduction.

A couple weeks ago, Trutanich told me he didn't consider the 2008 pledge to be valid, because Weiss never took up the challenge.

Was he letting himself off on a technicality?

I wondered about the kids who were waiting to find out, so on Monday I went to check out the LA's Best program at Leo Politi Elementary School, southwest of MacArthur Park.

In two words: very impressive.

More than 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade were studying literature, science, athletics, arts and crafts, gardening and yoga, among other things, and those who needed it were getting help with homework. This is not some kind of after-school babysitting service, said Sanger. They like to cultivate curiosity, let the kids pursue their own interests and have fun while getting plenty of intellectual stimulation.

But sometimes the hard realities of the kids' home lives can pose a challenge. A fourth-grade girl had tears in her eyes and was getting extra attention from staffer Lourdes Manriquez, who told me the child just lost her grandmother.

"She's struggled a lot in her life, and this is her second family," said Manriquez.

Many of the kids have working parents who can't afford day care, and Politi Principal Brad Rumble said LA's Best provides the kids "a safe, calm, predictable place" to hang with friends and mentors.

Crystal Carrera, who participated in LA's Best when she was a student at Politi, has come back to work as a girls softball coach and art instructor. The same is true of Rodrigo Garcia, the ecology instructor whose class was planting radishes Monday afternoon.

"Why wouldn't I give the kids what I got?" asked Garcia.

Sanger said a UCLA study of LA's Best found that participants were 30% less likely to become involved in criminal activity over time, and they had a dropout rate 20% lower than the average.

"This isn't just a program that looks good. It's got results," she said. "My yardstick is; 'Would I put my grandchildren in them?' And I would put my grandchildren in any of them."

When I asked Sanger what she would do with $100,000, she could have talked all day. Offering one example, she said: "We're cutting out transportation to fabulous arts and cultural events. I can't afford to take the kids there."

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