Slavkin Attacks School District Bureaucracy

Times Staff Writer

Saying the school district bureaucracy is "wholly dysfunctional," Westside's new representative to the Los Angeles school board told a small, supportive audience Tuesday that he would attack the district's "sacred cows" and its stifling system.

Too often, "what started as a creative idea . . . just gets totally mucked up by our system," Mark Slavkin said at a Tuesday night town meeting in Los Angeles. The district, he said, is "on the verge of total collapse and disaster."

The two-hour session at Hamilton High School drew 11 parents, teachers and administrators. Many of them had voted for him; some had even posted his campaign signs on their lawns or made phone calls for his election.

Slavkin, who took office July 1, said it was the first of monthly community meetings he will hold throughout the Westside district, which includes about 80 schools from Topanga Canyon and West Hollywood to Los Angeles International Airport.

Slavkin, 27, is on leave from his job as an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman while he determines whether his school board position will allow him time to do anything else, he said. "It's really become a full-time job," he said.

Slavkin won 51% of the votes cast in a runoff election June 6 to defeat incumbent Alan Gershman. During his campaign, he pledged to "shake up the fat-cat administrators and bureaucrats" and was backed by United Teachers-Los Angeles, which considers him a sympathetic fourth vote on the seven-member board.

Slavkin this week proposed to the school board that the teachers, counselors, nurses and others who are represented by UTLA vote on whether they should be required to join the union or at least pay dues. They are now required to do neither, but all 32,000 of them--22,000 of whom are union members and 10,000 are not--will get the wage increase of 24% over three years won by the union.

The issue is one of fairness, he said, likening it to taxes. "It's really not fair to say, 'I don't want to pay taxes, but I want police and fire protection,' " Slavkin said.

However, Slavkin also said UTLA has to become more dedicated to education reform and students and "less dedicated to a war machine fighting the district, banging heads."

And when teachers at the meeting said they were "tired of covering up" for incompetent colleagues, Slavkin urged that the processes for evaluating and firing teachers be streamlined. If problem teachers are not improving after they are given help, they should be dismissed, he said.

'Burned-Out Teachers'

"We've got a lot of excellent teachers, but we got a lot of burned out teachers, and a lot of teachers who would do great if they felt supported," he said. "It's one of the sacred cows in the district."

Parents said the Westside is getting a bum rap from people who live elsewhere who think the Westside is home solely to affluent students and parents.

"The stereotype of what a Westside student is" is no longer true, said Merle Strauss, chairwoman of Palisades Complex, a group of parents, teachers and administrators. She and other parents noted that many students are being bused to the Westside from poor schools that get federal funding, but that the funding does not follow them.

Ken Sleeper, a director in the district's educational evaluation office, said that a 20-year-old federal program grants funds to schools in low-income areas that have students with below-average test scores. But, he confirmed, the money does not follow the students.

"The way the law was initially intended, it was part of the war on poverty, geared to these schools in poverty areas. . . . It doesn't have the flexibility that people might have imagined."

Slavkin said that instead of shipping students from overcrowded schools, schools should be built in those neighborhoods.

At the same time, Slavkin said, the district has "driven people away who can afford to get away." After the meeting, he explained that many Westside parents who feel the district has been unresponsive have sent their children to private schools.

Slavkin said that in his 3 1/2 weeks in office, he was disturbed by the "micromanagement" of the board, which has included approving such picayune items as field trips that already happened and a $3.39 bill on a construction project.

"The system is . . . set up to guard against disasters," he said, charging that "you don't get the opposite--innovation, exciting ideas, risk-takers, creativity."

Pink Memoes Abound

"If a plane landed on a school, the response at the top would be: Who is the principal at that school? Don't we have a policy against this? Why were those kids out on the playground? . . . And then a pink memo to every school site saying, 'In the future, you must know the plane schedule in your area, and kids must never be on the playground, and there'll be an in-service for teachers next Saturday, because when the plane did crash, these teachers were not equipped to deal with it,' " he said.

Slavkin added that he wanted to see the new "shared decision-making" councils at schools take strong roles. The councils, provided for in the teachers' contract, will be established at all schools this fall. Composed of teachers, parents, administrators and community leaders, they will make decisions on spending, scheduling, student discipline and use of equipment--previously the realms of principals.

As chairman of the board's intergovernmental relations committee, Slavkin said he would work to resolve the district's "credibility problem" represented by the district's initially claiming that $80 million in cuts were needed but ultimately granting 8% wage increases over three years to teachers and administrators with only $43 million in cuts.

He is also the chairman of the personnel and schools committee and a member of the building committee.

Other duties include sitting on the business operations committee, which oversees the district's spending. "It may not sound as glamorous, but . . . (it involved) $20 million worth of milk last year, $8 million worth of burritos," he said.

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