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City Controller Uses Public Records Law in Attempt to Obtain L.A. Unified Reports

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles controller took the rare step Tuesday of requesting dozens of school district reports through the state public records law.

In a letter to schools Supt. Roy Romer, City Controller Laura Chick asked for copies of all “audits, reports and studies” of the district over the last five years by state and federal agencies, as well as by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

She also asked for all school district responses to those reports to see if any suggestions made were implemented.

Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to Romer, said that Chick had reached the “aim” part of “ready, aim and fire” in her attempt to perform an audit of the district. The district was “happy” to give Chick the reports, he said. “We look forward to hearing back.”

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Gritzner also said that he was not sure how such an audit would help improve the problems of the district, such as the dropout rate.

School board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte echoed those remarks.

“It’s a public records act, so she’s entitled to see it,” LaMotte said. “But to this day I haven’t seen a plan” from Chick “to improve

The public records law Chick invoked is most often used by journalists, watch-dog groups and individuals to get government documents. It is used less often by government itself.

Chick has become locked in an increasingly heated battle with the district since she suggested auditing it earlier this month.

Romer and school board members have argued that the district is subject to enough scrutiny.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has also been pursuing one of his campaign promises to take over the district, which by law is separate from city government. Chick has long been one of Villaraigosa’s key allies.

In an interview, Chick said that she made the request as a precursor to an audit and to see what the district has learned from earlier reports.

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“I have been asking individual school board members and Supt. Romer what are the things that you still don’t have your arms around that you need to know and I haven’t been particularly getting answers,” Chick said.

District officials recently gave The Times more than two dozen audits and reports, conducted since the early 1990s and covering a range of issues.

The thousands of pages, said Roger Rasmussen, district budget director, are a sampling of the frequent auditing done by the district’s inspector general and Independent Analysis Unit, private firms and government agencies.

Rasmussen noted a 1993 review done by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen that included about 300 recommendations for improvements. The district has implemented about 200 of those, he wrote in a memo to Romer.

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Over the last month, Chick has said little about what part of the district she intended to audit.

On Tuesday, Chick explained the reasoning behind her audit and what it might include.

“If I did an audit of the LAUSD, the world would know about it and it would not sit on a shelf collecting dust,” Chick said.

Chick, 61, served on the City Council from 1993 to 2001 and earned a reputation as a strong voice for her district. In 2001, she became controller and began performing audits -- large and small -- of city agencies, which earned her publicity.

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Most recently, for example, she released an audit of the city parking lots at Olvera Street.

She also tackled more complex issues in the city treasurer’s office and the Planning and Recreation and Parks departments.

But the school district’s budget is greater than the city’s -- $6.8 billion to $6 billion.

Chick said she would not scrutinize the entire system, but she offered several areas of interest.

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She previously has said she would not look at academics or the construction program.

Audit areas might include:

* Examining how the district plans to equip the 100-plus new facilities it is building or planning to construct.

* Tracking administrative spending to see if it is robbing dollars from the classroom.

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* Looking at the processes to make sure adequate resources get to the classroom.

Chick argued that the district’s performance demanded that something be done and drew on her experience on the council.

“I was a council member for the West Valley, which borders the Las Virgenes” Unified School District, Chick said. “Talk about a migration -- I used to think of myself standing at the boundary saying, ‘Stop, I’m not going to let you go.’ I know it was predominantly driven by schools.”

Disappointed in the performance of then-Mayor James K. Hahn, Chick considered a run at mayor this year. She chose to back Villaraigosa.

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Chick recently said that she won’t run for state auditor but has not ruled out a run for another office one day, including mayor.

She said that she’s not asking to audit the schools to garner publicity.

There are huge masses of people in Los Angeles “who don’t have a choice -- they are sending their kids to schools and they are failing,” Chick said. “What will happen to those kids? We have a dead end for the children of our poor families.”

Gritzner defended the school district.

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“Through all this rhetoric we’re just trying to do better,” he said. “It’s a tough message. We fully understand how dramatic the challenges are, and I don’t think anybody says we aren’t acknowledging them.”

Times staff writers Richard Fausset and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.


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