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L.A. School District Begins Dismantling Bureaucracy : Education: Hundreds accept invitation from superintendent to help decide how to decentralize authority. Plans for self-governing ‘clusters’ are to be ready by February.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Unified School District launched an unprecedented restructuring effort Thursday to transform the system from a centrally operated bureaucracy into self-governing clusters of high schools and their feeder campuses.

Nearly 1,000 teachers, parents and school officials crowded into the auditorium and spilled onto an adjacent patio of Hamilton High School on the Westside in response to an open invitation from Supt. Sid Thompson to help dismantle the administration and remake the district.

“We are going to do everything in our power to revamp and restructure so we can cause achievement to occur for our young people,” Thompson told the crowd. “We intend to reach out to every stake-holder group--parents, teachers, community members, administrators, classified staff. Our inherent belief is you are people who truly care about young people.”

By July, 1994, the much-maligned district will be completely reconfigured into smaller, more manageable components run by staff members who have a can-do attitude, Thompson promised.

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“The basic purpose is instruction, not administration,” said Thompson, adding that by bringing decision-making authority to the schools, those who are closest to students will be better able to address their needs.

The reorganization plan calls for termination of the nearly 25-year-old system of regional offices run by assistant superintendents who issue orders to schools. Instead, the district is to be broken down into 16 to 32 “school clusters” that include one or several high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them.

Ideally, the clusters would share resources, design educational programs and set goals for student achievement in their communities. Officials hope that the arrangement will better allow teachers to monitor students’ needs as they move through elementary and high schools. Thompson will appoint a cluster leader to head each group.

At Thursday’s giant meeting, hundreds of people assembled into 10 large subcommittees--including groups that will decide the number of clusters, what schools will be in each one, the role of parents and the job description of cluster leaders. The groups must turn over their plans to Thompson by the end of February.

“We don’t want to tell you what you should do,” Thompson said. “We are asking you what you want to do. You now have the power to tell us what you think this ought to look like, how to go about it.”

School Board President Leticia Quezada said the board will not tamper with the recommendations that emerge from the committees.

“This is a major dismantling of what used to be the centralized LAUSD,” Quezada said. “What is lacking in Los Angeles today, which is a sense of community, we are going to re-create around our schools.”

The long-promised restructuring is designed to complement the five-year LEARN reform plan and is a point-by-point follow-through of recommendations made in a district management audit that sharply criticized the system as having a disorganized, ineffective bureaucracy.

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Many principals and teachers have cautiously applauded the move, saying it will be difficult to overcome lingering skepticism that the huge district and its corps of bureaucrats can really change.

“I hope everyone understands that we can’t run a new system under the old rules,” said Seth Sandberg, president of the 470-school Elementary Principal’s Organization. “If the new system is going to work, the district is going to have to take a gamble and say we can solve our own problems.”

Helen Bernstein, United Teachers-Los Angeles president, said the cluster concept is supported by her union and was suggested by its leadership over a year ago. The union’s 28,000 members took a 10% pay cut last year after one of the most bitter labor disputes in the district’s history.

Some say the district must move swiftly on the reorganization to fend off another breakup movement by Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) and a vocal group of parents in the San Fernando Valley, on the Westside and in the Harbor area.

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While temporarily shelved, the breakup movement is far from over. Its leaders are regrouping to chart a new strategy after the failure last summer of a bill by Roberti to divide the district into at least seven units.

Jill Reiss, a parent leader of the movement, called the district’s efforts “a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s another ruse to stifle our opposition, to create the appearance that things are going to change. But we are still dealing with the same bureaucrats and the same union running the district from a bully pulpit.”

The structural remake of the school district is one of the most significant components of the five-year LEARN reform plan adopted by the school board in spring. LEARN--Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--shifts virtually every aspect of school management from Downtown to the school site. Principals are in charge, working in collaboration with teachers and parents.

Thirty-four schools volunteered to be part of the first phase last summer. Another 60 will be added this spring, and the entire 650-school district will be involved in five years, district officials say.

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