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Discord builds over new downtown arts school

A tug of war erupted last week over L.A.'s new downtown arts high school, with some of its biggest supporters declaring that they had given up on the Los Angeles Unified School District and wanted the $242-million campus turned over to a charter school organization. In response to the critics, who included philanthropist Eli Broad, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines shot back: “There is not a for-sale sign on it.”

The tension had been building for months, fueled in part by the district’s plan to reserve most of the school’s seats for students from the surrounding neighborhood rather than open it up to the most talented students districtwide. It bubbled over after two star principals from the East Coast turned down offers to take charge, leaving the school leaderless less than six months before it opens in September.

“This pace is so slow that we have lost total confidence that the district could open this school in September as a really excellent place for students,” said Maria Casillas, president of Families in Schools, a nonprofit organization that encourages parental involvement in education. She is on the board of Discovering the Arts, an organization created to support the downtown arts school, and was on a design team for the school until she recently resigned in frustration.

Casillas and others have reached out to Judy Burton, the president and chief executive of the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, a successful charter organization, in hopes that she could run the arts school with Board of Education approval. Burton, a former top official at L.A. Unified, said she would do so only in partnership with the district, and with the blessing of Cortines and board President Monica Garcia.

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Cortines declined to comment on the idea, but he has said he does not want to turn the school over to a charter organization now, although he would consider letting staff convert it to a charter after it opens.

“Everybody sees the opportunity to have this beautiful building at no cost, and they want it,” he said in an interview. The school, designed by the Austrian architectural firm of Coop Himmelblau, is both striking and filled with amenities that are rare for an L.A. public school, including a state-of-the-art theater, ceramics workshops, ceiling-hung projectors and track lighting.

Cortines complained about an e-mail he said he received from Broad that was disclosed in an article in the Downtown News. Cortines said Broad told him that if the district did not give up control, “the school is deemed to be mediocre and a failure.”

The superintendent, clearly stung, said he wrote back to Broad “that in my career, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything mediocre nor have I been a failure.” He said he was surprised by the tone of the e-mail and complained that Broad has never followed through on a promise to pay for the school’s iconic tower, which overlooks the 101 Freeway.

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Through a spokesman, Broad declined to comment on his exchange with Cortines or to discuss the school, which he has long championed.

Garcia said she wasn’t opposed to the idea of a charter, a public school that is independently run. But she said she was pushing to open it as a district school. She said it would be much more independent than most traditional high schools and would have a less-restrictive teachers’ contract.

The first sign of trouble at the campus came last summer, when the school’s new executive director -- hired early to oversee hiring and planning -- quit. The school district decided then to focus on hiring a principal and heavily recruited the head of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., Rory L. Pullens. He had been expected to sign a contract in January but backed out because of a family crisis.

The district then turned to its No. 2 choice, the principal of the acclaimed in New York, better known as Fame.

After showing strong interest, Principal Kim Bruno visited Los Angeles -- and promptly pulled out.

In an e-mail to The Times, Bruno said she decided to stay at LaGuardia “because I am already very fulfilled both personally & professionally,” and insisted that there was “nothing in particular” that had turned her off to Los Angeles. But Cortines said she was concerned that there “was not a clear direction” at the school, and Casillas said she had been “very, very concerned and quite anxious” about working with the L.A. Unified bureaucracy.

Pullens said in an interview that, as a native Southern Californian, he had been strongly drawn to the challenge and to what he called “arguably the most amazing facility that has ever existed for any arts school in this country.” Pullens’ Washington school operates in partnership with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and he said he had been excited about the opportunity to create a school that could work in tandem with the Los Angeles-based entertainment industry.

He said that although his family issue shaped his decision, he also had deep concerns about whether he would have the freedom to run the school free of the district’s daunting bureaucracy. He also was worried about how little time remained before the school opened. Ideally, he said, the principal should have been hired at least a year before opening.

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Richard Alonzo, the local district superintendent who oversaw the school until Cortines stepped in, said the district has set a deadline of April 14 to find a principal from within district ranks. Meanwhile, he has been hiring lower-ranking staff, and the school is processing student applications.

For Casillas and a group of other influential community members, Bruno’s withdrawal was the last straw, leading to the calls for the school to become a charter. She said they also were alarmed because L.A. Unified had been slow to reach a deal with the teachers’ union over a contract for the school.

United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy said he signed an agreement last week that would put the arts school under the same “thin contract” that exists for other schools in the area around Belmont High School. Under that contract, Los Angeles Unified has given schools flexibility in staffing, budgeting and curriculum.

The arts school, still known by its working title, High School No. 9, has a long and politically tortuous history. Originally conceived as a regular high school to help relieve overcrowding at Belmont, it morphed into an arts school at the urging of Broad, who saw it as a companion piece to the Grand Avenue redevelopment project he was pushing.

That led to a dispute over whether the school would serve the most talented young artists, musicians and performers in the city or just those in the surrounding neighborhoods of downtown and Pico Union, some of the poorest parts of the city. So far, the neighborhood option has prevailed, although the school board ultimately ruled that 300 of 1,700 seats would go to students from outside the immediate area.

Even that question has become politically charged, because the area once served only by Belmont High now has three high schools. Some believe the district has overbuilt and should open more seats in the arts school to students districtwide. But district officials say enrollment in the area is on the rise.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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