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State Rejects Valley School Secession Bid

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The State Board of Education unanimously killed a proposal Thursday to break San Fernando Valley schools away from the Los Angeles district, keeping the issue off the ballot and ending a long campaign.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has its problems, board members acknowledged, but pulling out 200,000 students would not solve them. Citing recent improvements in the test scores in the nation’s second-largest school district, board members expressed optimism in the leadership of the district and Supt. Roy Romer.

“Frankly, we ought to give him a chance,” said Donald G. Fisher, chairman and founder of Gap Inc., seeming to summarize the board’s sentiments.

Romer, his district and the teachers union cheered the decision. The citizens group that circulated the original petition called the vote cowardly and repeated its concerns that a school system of 732,000 students and 708 square miles is too large to be effective.

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“I’m sure no one would think of putting Sacramento schools together with the schools of the Bay Area, but that’s the type of ground the LAUSD covers,” said Stephanie Carter, a leader of Finally Restoring Excellence in Education, or FREE.

The group had proposed creating north and south Valley districts of roughly 100,000 students each. Roscoe Boulevard would have divided them.

After Thursday’s hearing, Carter said secession supporters had not decided whether to pursue another course to give the Valley control over its schools. They could revise their plan and restart the years-long process of petitions, analyses and hearings, or they could seek legislation.

The decision Thursday blocks one of three secession movements in the Valley: for independent schools, an autonomous transit district and, most controversial, an independent Valley city.

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The cityhood movement, which began decades ago, is expected to reach a climax next year when the Local Agency Formation Commission determines whether voters should decide the question.

Valley sentiment has always been difficult to measure. In 1998, 58% of Valley voters favored an independent city, according to a poll by The Times. Earlier this year, that margin had dropped to 51% of Valley registered voters. The same poll showed that citywide, 45% opposed and only 36% favored Valley secession.

Going into Thursday’s public hearing, the school breakup plan had several strikes against it.

A Los Angeles County committee, a private consultant and the state Department of Education had all identified areas in which the proposal appeared to fail California’s legislative tests for splitting school districts.

Chief among those flaws: that L.A. Unified could not function without funding from the Valley’s taxpayers, that the Valley is home to campuses and programs that L.A. Unified cannot do without, and that removing Valley students would further segregate Los Angeles schools.

More than half of the white students in L.A. Unified would have been switched to the new Valley districts, said Jesus Quinonez, a lawyer representing United Teachers-Los Angeles.

“This proposal promotes segregation,” he said.

Supporters of school secession tried to refute those arguments in their remarks to the state board and painted L.A. Unified as too large to be effective.

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“Keeping this bureaucracy denies a sound educational experience to the children it is supposed to serve. It has failed for decades, and it will continue to fail as long as you allow it to remain intact,” Carter said.

District Called a Wasteful Giant

Countering the state Department of Education’s negative analysis of the secession plan, she contended that the staff used inadequate data to conclude that the breakup would increase crowding in classrooms, and she accused the L.A. district of mismanaging $2.4 billion in bond funds approved in 1997 for school construction.

Facing board members from throughout California, former Rep. Bobbi Fiedler cast L.A. Unified as a hungry giant that wastefully gobbles funds. She cited one of the district’s more embarrassing fiascoes: the $170-million Belmont Learning Complex near downtown that has yet to open because of environmental concerns.

“Every dollar squandered at LAUSD is one denied to more responsible districts like yours,” Fiedler told board members.

Romer said building new schools, as the district plans to do, will ease overcrowding and improve learning--but that L.A. Unified can only do that if it remains one district.

“We have got to build our way out of this problem,” he said.

One by one, board members voiced their displeasure with the secession plan.

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“This proposal doesn’t solve that problem, because it creates three massive organizations,” member Suzanne A. Tacheny said. “It does so . . . when we’re seeing for the first time some pretty impressive gains in reading in Los Angeles that have left us hopeful.”

One of the members from the Los Angeles area agreed.

“The LAUSD is finally making some changes and making some improvements,” Nancy Ichinaga said. “I would like them to be able to continue, and I would not like to be part of destroying them.”

State board President Reed Hastings said that no matter how he looked at the proposal, he could not see how it could meet the stringent criteria set out by the Legislature to make sure that public education would not suffer.

After a 90-minute hearing and the board’s 10-0 decision against ordering a public vote on the issue--11th member Carlton J. Jenkins was absent--Carter said the board, appointed by the governor, “failed to demonstrate courage.”

“They don’t understand how many children are falling through the cracks,” she said. “We have kids who go through these classrooms. We know about the disconnect.”

Romer vowed to improve the school district’s relationship with the Valley. Before he became superintendent, L.A. Unified tried to appease breakaway supporters by decentralizing some of its business, creating 11 mini-districts--three of them in the Valley. The superintendents of those districts will meet with the secessionists, Romer said Thursday.

“I want to make the Valley feel absolutely a part of this district and not an appendage,” he said. “It has to give us its ideas.”

Leaving the Los Angeles district has proved impossible since 1948, when Torrance seceded. The South Bay city of Carson came close when the state Board of Education put a breakup plan there before voters, but the measure failed at the polls last month. The union representing Los Angeles teachers helped defeat it.

‘You Can’t Gain at the Expense of Others’

United Teachers-Los Angeles President Day Higuchi praised Thursday’s vote to keep L.A. schools together as “the right thing to do.”

“You can’t gain at the expense of others,” he said. “It would have caused tremendous disruption for the half a million students left in the district.”

The question of Valley cityhood--separate from the school issue--remains active and will be unaffected by Thursday’s defeat of the education plan, said Richard Close, a leader of the Valley VOTE movement.

“It’s two different governmental functions,” he said.

As the municipal secession movement proceeds, school secession may yet revive itself, he said.

“The Board of Education might have indicated concrete objections that possibly could be solved,” Close said.

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Tamaki reported from Sacramento and Ritsch reported from Los Angeles.

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MORE INSIDE

Reversal: Valley secessionists drop a plan for a part-time City Council and seek a full-time one. B3


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