Column

FBI at the door is just the latest bad news for L.A. school district

FBI agents marched in and seized 20 boxes of documents relating to LAUSD's $1.3-billion iPad fiasco

With three weeks left in December, I'm hesitant to jump the gun and suggest that we've seen the last of this year's troubles for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

As you might have heard, there was a knock at the door of district headquarters last Monday.

It was the FBI.

I'd like to tell you the federal agents were there for a mentoring program or some other educational purpose, but that wasn't the case.

Agents marched in and seized 20 boxes of documents relating to the district's $1.3-billion iPad fiasco, making clear that a criminal investigation is underway. A federal grand jury would have plenty to look at, given a bidding process that smelled like a red mullet fish kill, with cozy relationships between top district officials, Apple and curriculum provider Pearson.

I'm wondering why the feds didn't kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. While they were rummaging around at district headquarters, they could have grabbed another 20 boxes of documents related to the disastrous multimillion-dollar electronic student tracking system that created chaos in August and still hasn't been fixed.

And speaking of the FBI, district officials were oddly complacent about the storm troopers, if you ask me. You'd think someone would have enough self-respect, even if it was just for show, to put up a fuss or demand an explanation for the raid. But I watched a district lawyer tell a TV reporter, with a smile, "I have no idea what it's about."

I'll tell you what it's about.

It's about a disastrous year for the nation's second-largest school district, which has managed — thanks to bungling, sloth and political squabbling — to let down more than 600,000 students.

And the iPad and MISIS (My Integrated Student Information System) failures were not the only things that went wrong. The district paid out a staggering $139 million last month to settle claims against a teacher who fed his own semen to elementary school students, among other monstrous behavior, some three decades after the district received its first complaint about him.

It's still not clear how he was able to pull off his crimes after protections were put into place because of a previous sex abuse scandal, nor is it evident that adequate steps have been taken to diminish the chance of such a thing happening again. District officials have had maddeningly little to say about any of it.

And while I'm on the subject of abuse, KPCC was the first to report last month that in 2013, a district-contracted lawyer argued in court that a girl who sued the district was mature enough at 14 to have consented to the sexual affair she had with her 28-year-old middle school math teacher.

If stupidity and rotten leadership were federal crimes, the FBI would still be lugging boxes out of Beaudry.

The records removal, of course, harks back to Supt. John Deasy. He was supposed to lead the district to new heights when he took over three years ago, but he left under a cloud, in part due to his monumentally botched iPad plan.

After that, the Board of Education lured former Supt. Ray Cortines out of retirement to play quarterback, and he's a capable and energetic guy at 82. But the board has given no indication as to how long he'll be at the helm or whether anyone has begun serious conversations about recruiting a long-term replacement, should anyone be brave enough to take the job.

Meanwhile, teachers aren't happy about going years without raises, and their union is locked in bitter negotiations with the district. And unresolvable political divisions remain as to who should be running the district: the school board or the superintendent.

Is there anything good to say about LAUSD?

Yes, as a matter of fact. For all the distractions, most teachers and principals care about their jobs and do them well, and students have continued to show gains in recent years. And as for graduation rates and go-to-college rates, UCLA education professor John Rogers says the numbers "seem to have improved significantly."

But clearly, there's a long, long way to go.

"What we have right now is complete dysfunction," said Antonia Hernandez, director of the California Community Foundation. She and other community leaders have tried to agitate for better leadership, and she thought Deasy, despite his missteps, was rattling many of the right cages.

So what next?

"We don't know what to do anymore," she said.

But doing nothing, as she knows, is unacceptable.

A Friday headline in this newspaper reiterated an obvious reality: The Southern California economy is stuck in low-wage mode, in part because of an under-educated workforce. There's no way out of that rut without doing a better job of preparing 600,000-plus youngsters to become fully invested contributors. Every one of us stands to benefit, including employees, employers and taxpayers.

Despite continued school funding issues, money from Proposition 30 and Gov. Brown's plan to redistribute the wealth to needier districts makes for an opportunity that can't be wasted. So the first order of business is to find the right superintendent.

And if the LAUSD board thinks it can take the holiday season off, or wait until after the March elections to get serious about that conversation, someone else should do the job for them.

Who should that be?

As Rogers pointed out, the challenges in school districts like LAUSD are largely about socioeconomic issues, and that's the purview of county officials. So why is it that L.A. County supervisors, whose constituents fill L.A. schools, act as if LAUSD is somebody else's problem rather than everybody's responsibility?

We don't need a politician to hijack the district, as former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to do, or to stock the board with lackeys. But there's middle ground between Villaraigosa's hostile takeover bid and Mayor Eric Garcetti's unapologetic invisibility.

Where's the leadership and collaboration in one of the richest cities in the world, home to some of the greatest universities on the planet, as well as some of the largest nonprofits devoted to lifting up communities?

I'm not a fan of blue-ribbon panels that have no authority and produce voluminous reports nobody reads. But I'd be willing to temporarily waive my bias if a team of good people got together to help the district find a new superintendent and map out a plan to turn things around in 2015, especially if no one on the school board is going to lead or get out of the way.

There's too much at stake to plod along, business as usual, as a horrible year ends with the FBI at the door.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
64°