'Stampede' to Split LAUSD Proves to Be a Slow Stroll : There's plenty time to reform and preserve school district

There was much celebration last year when Gov. Pete Wilson signed separate bills from Sacramento's most prominent odd couple: Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills) and Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). Their companion bills laid the groundwork to make it "easier" to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Boland referred to the legislation as "the culmination of a 20-year effort on behalf of parents and myself." Diana Dixon-Davis, a San Fernando Valley activist, added, "People are no longer saying, 'Will we break up?' " And Greg Magnuson, a consultant with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, had this to say about an anticipated rush to plan new districts: "This is a race to the roses. The first [to secede] will get the gold.. . ."

Well, to date it is anything but a race. It's also clear that use of the word "easier" in this context should be accompanied by an asterisk.

The new laws did ease the way by reducing the percentage of signatures needed to get a fully planned breakup attempt on a ballot. It fell from 25% of registered voters in a district to just 8% of the total that voted in the previous gubernatorial election. And the new rules removed the substantial powers that local school boards possessed to derail such efforts.

But the ease stopped there. That's because the present situation differs significantly from those that existed during past efforts to dismantle the LAUSD.

In 1970, for example, two equally unlikely Sacramento allies (conservative Sen. John L. Harmer of Glendale and liberal Assemblyman Bill Greene) shepherded a failed attempt to break up the LAUSD. Later, Northridge Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette led a vain attempt to create a San Fernando Valley district. Most recently, former Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti tried and failed to dismantle the LAUSD.

All these attempts, in part, would have involved a sweeping, Sacramento-based and Sacramento-directed push by relatively powerful legislators. That was not the primary element of the Boland/Hayden bills; both of the lawmakers have been very clear about that.

Hayden said the legislation "establishes a process by which citizens of Los Angeles can create a new school district if they choose to." In Boland's words, the Legislature has "empowered people to break up the schools if they want to, whereas before it was impossible." We're not saying that either legislator simply opened the door and walked away. We are saying that much of the planning has to come at the community level, in addition to efforts of local leaders like Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. And there's more.

Conventional wisdom had it that wealthier, supposedly more highly educated, more concerned and better organized communities would advance their plans first, leaving poorer and predominantly minority sections of town behind. So much for conventional wisdom.

A San Fernando Valley group that had spearheaded initial efforts met recently for the first time in months to try to energize its flagging campaign. At least one of its speakers was a parent from the community that put forth the first formal proposal to secede--South Los Angeles' Inner City Unified School District plan. A further irony here is that the very thing that Hayden's bill was designed to prevent--the formation of any racially and economically segregated school district--may be a danger under the Inner City School District plan.

The 31st District Parent Teacher Student Assn. has produced three scenarios for Valley school districts, but this is only a starting point for discussion.

A few of the many gargantuan tasks to be worked out in any plan: how to divide the district's billions of dollars in assets and debts; determining who will pay employee pensions; ensuring an adequate base of local funding for new districts. Maybe that's why a few years may pass before a breakup proposal reaches the ballot. Maybe that's why we keep saying that the serious work of reforming the LAUSD must proceed apace. It's still the only district we have.

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