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Business Not as Usual for Schools

The volunteer committee that oversees the spending of $2.4 billion in Proposition BB money for the repair and construction of Los Angeles public schools is negotiating a new and better way of doing business in the school district. The flaws in the old ways have been painfully exposed in a computerized analysis of spending and contracts by Times staff writer Doug Smith. The process needs a lot more correcting, but thanks to the oversight committee it will not go back behind closed doors.

After the committee, chaired by developer Steven Soboroff, raised complaints about how slowly bond money was being spent, and about how contracts were being awarded, L.A. Unified School District Supt. Ruben Zacarias said he would speed up the process. For starters, Zacarias shifted much of the management authority from district bureaucrats to an outside program manager and 10 project managers, who though hired last June by the school district to oversee larger projects had been given little to do.

The project managers now need to set a faster pace. Fewer than half of the 3,264 repair jobs scheduled to have started are actually underway. The delays are typical in the huge school district, which seems able to stall anything from getting the bathroom scrubbed at an elementary school to negotiating a volume deal to install air conditioning.

Zacarias appointed a panel to work on the contracting process, but its makeup is too familiar; it includes Soboroff, the politically astute Deputy Supt. Ron Prescott, facilities chief Beth Louargand, financial chief Henry Jones and at least one LAUSD staff attorney.

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The Times analysis of Proposition BB contracts also found that the money is going disproportionately to schools in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside, while campuses on the Eastside and in South-Central got less--in some cases because they simply requested less. The oversight committee and the superintendent have rightly invited schools to resubmit their requests, but the equity issue needs to be more thoroughly addressed.

A vigilant oversight committee is making a difference in how the bond money is spent, but it alone is not enough to restore public confidence. The district still lacks a business czar, four months after the person hired for the job quit abruptly, complaining of bureaucratic interference. The LAUSD also needs an inspector general, an independent fiscal power who can assure competitive, open contract bidding.

Proposition BB provided a $2.4-billion windfall to the LAUSD. The district should welcome all possible expert oversight in spending it.


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