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LAUSD Breakup Plan Lacking in 2 Key Areas

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A plan to split up the nation’s second-largest school district and form two school systems in the San Fernando Valley meets most of the state’s breakup criteria but could promote ethnic segregation and discrimination and lack sufficient funding, according to a report released Wednesday.

The thick, two-volume report examined the feasibility of breaking up the 711,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District and creating two new Valley systems. It will play a significant role when the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization makes a recommendation next week to the state Board of Education whether to put the issue before voters.

The committee’s 11 members, who are elected by school district governing boards throughout the county, declined comment until they announce their recommendation next Wednesday at the county education office headquarters in Downey.

One of half a dozen LAUSD breakup proposals in the works, the Valley plan by the citizens group Finally Restoring Excellence in Education, or FREE, calls for two 100,000-student districts, with Roscoe Boulevard serving as the primary boundary between them.

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But the report by an independent consultant stated that splitting up the district would decrease the percentage of white students in the remaining L.A. Unified district from 11% to 6% of the total student population.

The proposed North and South Valley school districts would be composed of 17% and 27% white students, respectively, according to the report prepared by Caldwell Flores Winters Inc., a consulting group based in Cardiff, in San Diego County.

Although the white student population is already decreasing in LAUSD, the report said a split could accelerate the process and impede LAUSD’s ability to maintain its current desegregation program.

The report also stated that the prospective loss of desegregation funds could cause a substantial fiscal loss for the remaining LAUSD. The two Valley districts also would not have enough money to cover expenses, among other problems.

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“I am not surprised that the proposal was not able to meet those two criteria,” said school board President Genethia Hayes, who is opposed to breakup. “I would like to see the Valley residents really and truly get behind working to make this district the best it can be.”

Stephanie Carter, a leader of the Valley breakup effort, said she would not comment on the report until she had a chance to review it.

Along with meeting seven of the nine legal requirements, the report stated that the FREE proposal complies with additional criteria for school districts with more than 500,000 students. These include complying with laws to protect the rights of disabled and minority students and honoring collective-bargaining agreements and existing retiree health, dental and vision care benefits.

The report gave little indication of how the committee will vote next week.

Pamela Johnson, secretary to the county education committee, said the report is only an analysis of census figures, public comments and documents from the state and LAUSD.

“The committee has discretion,” Johnson said, explaining that even if the consultants decide FREE’s proposal meets all requirements, committee members could still reject it.

Regardless, the proposal and recommendation will be forwarded to the California Board of Education, which ultimately will decide whether to call an election. The state, which has no timeline, has not yet determined who would vote in the election--all district voters or just those in the areas proposed for independence.

The report comes at a time of mounting support for breaking up L.A. Unified as school officials continue to grapple with overcrowding, toxic school sites, low test scores, outdated textbooks and library books, and tangled layers of bureaucracy. The search for a superintendent has been rocky, with four of the five original candidates spurning the job.

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State Board of Education member Marian Bergeson said the board will take the county recommendation “very seriously.”

“Everyone is looking for ways to make [LAUSD] better,” said Bergeson, a former legislator and state secretary of education. “A great city like Los Angeles doesn’t deserve a school district with so many problems.”

State Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) is proposing legislation calling for state oversight of L.A. Unified, and if education improvements are not made after three years, a district breakup.

He said the district should not be broken up in a piecemeal fashion, but only after a careful review to determine how to best divide it.

“I understand the frustration of those who want to break away,” Polanco said. “However, we must not allow ourselves to have the breakup movement take over our sense of priority when it comes to servicing the educational needs of our kids.”

State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), who supports smaller Valley districts but has not endorsed the FREE plan, said Wednesday that racial-diversity issues outlined in the report should not stand in the way of academic achievement.

“Whether those kids who are suffering with poor academic achievement would do better in a smaller district should be the driving consideration, not ethnic diversity,” Alarcon said.

Although the district has adopted a neutral position on the five breakaway movements in various stages across Los Angeles, LAUSD Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller called the fact-finding report a constructive first step.

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“It sets out the information and facts that everyone has to take into account in making a decision,” Miller said. “It is constructive in that the information has been developed, and there will be a lot of discussion over the analysis.”

The proposal’s failure to meet racial-diversity and financial-viability criteria points to how difficult it is to create a new district, said school board member Caprice Young, who represents portions of the Valley. Even so, she said residents should have a chance to vote on school secession.

“But my sincere wish is that by the time they do, we will have turned the district around and they won’t want to break it up,” Young said.

Late last year, the Little Hoover Commission, the state’s watchdog agency, recommended the appointment of a panel of community leaders and professionals to examine dismantling the district, which it called a “disturbingly dysfunctional organization.”

The drive to dismantle L.A. Unified also parallels stalled campaigns in the Valley and Harbor area to secede from the city of Los Angeles. Last November, city secession leaders said the LAUSD breakup effort should take precedence, in part because it has a higher chance of success.

No community has left L.A. Unified since Torrance in 1948. Lomita has tried to form its own 2,000-student district but failed twice because the state Board of Education believed the new district would be too small to operate efficiently.

The state is also reviewing a proposal by the city of Carson to break away from LAUSD and form an 18,000-student unified school district.

The proposed Valley districts would be among the five largest in the state, according to the state Department of Education. Supporters say the new school districts would be large enough to wield clout in Sacramento but small enough to respond to the community.

Valley activists advocated a school district split for more than a decade. FREE formed two years ago but experienced several setbacks, including losing its executive director and being overshadowed by the city secession drive.

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LAUSD Breakup Report

The report released Wednesday by the Los Angeles County Office of Education looks at whether a proposal to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District would substantially meet the following conditions under state law:

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In addition, state law requires that when dismantling a school district with more than 500,000 students--and LAUSD is the only district that large--the new districts have to be socioeconomically diverse and the geographical boundaries sound, among other factors.

The new school districts would also have to comply with laws to protect the rights of disabled and minority students and honor collective bargaining agreements and existing retiree health, dental and vision care benefits.

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Proposed Valley School Districts

Source: Los Angeles County Office of Education; Finally Restoring Excellence in Education


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