Cost of Carving Up L.A. District Put as High as $40 Million : Education: State Finance Department's estimate of annual added expense to taxpayers is attacked as excessive by backers of plan. Opponents say it's too low.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state Department of Finance, jumping into the fray over the proposed dismantling of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Monday that the breakup could cost taxpayers between $20 million and $40 million a year.

The estimate was immediately criticized as too high by supporters of legislation to divide the 640,000-student district, and as too low by opponents.

The cost issue surfaced for the first time in the Legislature at a meeting of a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which recommended that the full panel support the legislation by Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys).

The breakup measure is expected to win approval in the Senate but faces an uncertain fate in the Assembly because of opposition from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).

Roberti's bill would set up a 26-member commission to propose carving L.A. Unified into seven or more districts and put the issue on the November, 1994, ballot.

Under the provisions, the new districts could continue transporting children from overcrowded campuses--primarily in minority areas--to schools with more space in the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles.

To help these students, Roberti's measure would require the newly established districts to provide tutoring and counseling services as well as help for parents.

Stanley Cubanski of the Finance Department said the implementation costs could range between $20 million and $40 million a year beyond what is now being spent. He said the citizens' breakup commission would cost another $1 million and elections for new districts would add another expense.

Cubanski said he could not immediately determine how analysts in the department reached the estimates or which taxpayers would pick up the tab. But he said that in the past the state has reimbursed new districts for similar expenses.

The cost issue promises to become a hotly debated topic as the Roberti measure moves through the Legislature because the state and school district are strapped for funds.

Cubanski said the estimates are the first made public by his department, whose director is an appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson. The department has not taken a position on the Roberti bill, nor has the governor.

Roberti, who has argued that the district is too large to respond to school needs, said in an interview that Cubanski's figures are too high. He maintained that the new districts would save money because they would not need an expensive central administrative bureaucracy.

But school district officials who oppose the breakup see the figures differently. "I think the Department of Finance understated the cost," said district lobbyist Ronald Prescott.

Prescott said that dismantling the sprawling school system could boost annual administrative costs by $75 million a year and, if busing programs are phased out, lead to the need for $1 billion in new school construction.

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