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L.A. Schools to Replace Panels on Minorities

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Despite fierce opposition, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to scrap seven volunteer commissions that advocate for minority student groups including Latinos and gays and lesbians.

They will be replaced by a new Human Relations Commission charged with looking out for the interests of all the district’s minorities.

Board members said they believe the change is necessary to protect the district from a legal challenge under Proposition 209, the state initiative that ended racial and gender preferences in hiring and contracting in public agencies.

But several trustees also spoke of creating a unifying force for the district’s diverse racial, ethnic and cultural groups.

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“I think it is time to address the needs of students in a more systematic way, not based on the type of group they’re in,” said board member Jeff Horton. “I would envision a commission that has a place in it for every student’s needs.”

Board member Valerie Fields added, “There is strength in numbers and strength in unity.”

As a result of the action, the seven paid executive directors of the commissions will be reassigned within the district once their positions are eliminated June 30.

Board members asked the directors to work until then to help consolidate their experiences and programs into the new group.

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Roots in Chicano Walkouts of 1968

The seven commissions have their roots in the Chicano student walkouts of 1968, which prompted the board to create a panel of community volunteers who could speak for the interests of Mexican American students. Later, commissions were added for African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans as well as to support gender equity, special education students and gay and lesbian students. A commission for Armenian Americans was being formed.

Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, one of only three speakers in favor of the proposal, said Monday that his experience has shown that only a single agency can speak for all interests equally.

“The current commission structure could be expanded several-fold and still not adequately represent all the racial, cultural and identity interests,” he said. “As a nation, state, city and school district, we must begin to think in terms that transcend our race, ethnicity or other identity interests.”

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About a dozen speakers pleaded with the board to make no change, contending that the commissions play a watchdog role that cannot be replicated by a single panel.

Several commissioners accused the board of wanting to get rid of the commissions because they had made things unpleasant.

A representative of the Mexican-American Education Commission argued that the influence of Latinos, who make up 70% of the district’s enrollment, would be diluted on a single commission.

“What would be the Latino representation?” asked former commissioner Alan Clayton. “Would it be 20%?”

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Christopher Calhoun of the Los Angeles Gay/Lesbian Center said the elimination of the Gay and Lesbian Education Commission would expose homosexual students to greater verbal harassment and hate crimes. Such attacks contribute to a high suicide rate among gay and lesbian teenagers, he said.

Humberto Camacho, a coordinator for the One Stop Immigration & Educational Center in Los Angeles, called the dismantling of the commissions “a disgrace.” He said other human relations commissions have proved to be paper tigers, incapable of strong advocacy.

Attempting to assuage opponents, Horton said he wanted all the commissions’ funding, about $700,000, to be turned over to the new commission so there would be no way to interpret the change as a dilution of commission power.

Board member George Kiriyama recommended that all seven paid executive directors of the commission work for the new Human Relations Commissions for a year to be sure the experiment succeeds.

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Trustee Assails ‘Knee-Jerk’ Foes

Board member Barbara Boudreaux, who proposed the new Human Relations Commission in October, was less conciliatory. Facing shouts from the audience, she castigated the existing commissions for “knee-jerk” opposition.

Though not naming anyone, Boudreaux accused some people of spreading lies about her proposal. “Some tried to jerk around all the other commissioners,” she said.

Boudreaux added that the commissions had provided no help in resolving a black-Latino conflict at South Gate Middle School that eventually led to a lawsuit filed by a black teacher and student alleging discrimination by the school’s Latino administration.

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“We had hoped that the commissions would work with us in our effort to form the [new] commission,” she said.

Board member Victoria Castro visibly chafed at that comment but said she thought the South Gate dispute would not have erupted into “one community pitted against another” if there had been a human relations commission.

Supporters of the commissions also challenged the board’s legal interpretation that the panels are not compatible with Proposition 209.

District general counsel Richard K. Mason said he could not divulge the full breadth of the legal opinion given by outside counsel hired to review the impact of Proposition 209, but he said the district would be vulnerable to lawsuits if it did not dismantle the old commissions. He said the district could have defended itself in court but probably would have lost.

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Earlier in the day, representatives of the Gender Equity Commission said they hoped the board might exempt their group, as well as the special education and gay and lesbian commissions, because they do not conflict with Proposition 209.

Although Mason conceded that was probably true, the board disregarded the proposal to scrap only those groups having to do with ethnicity.

In other action, the board:

* Unanimously instructed district staff to hire an outside auditor to review spending on Proposition BB, the $2.4-billion school bond approved by voters last April. An outside audit was one of several recommendations made last week by the volunteer oversight committee set up to review Proposition BB spending.

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