Column: Tenacious change agent makes improving L.A. Unified his mission
“He could be a burr in your saddle,” says former L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer. “But generally he was there when I needed him to help get the job done.”
“I don’t always agree with Scott, and sometimes I vigorously disagree with him,” says school board President Steve Zimmer. “But I always want to know what he’s thinking, and if I’ve done something wrong in his eyes, I’m interested in that criticism.”
Both men are talking about Scott Folsom.
Chances are you’ve never heard of him, and neither have hundreds of thousands of students who have benefited from Folsom’s two decades of unpaid public service.
He’s been a local and state PTA member and has raised a hand to serve on dozens of education committees. He advocated for restoration of arts programs and expansion of health services, and he kept an eye on how intelligently the district was spending your precious tax dollars, by the billions, on the school building boom.
And Folsom has chronicled this journey on his blog, 4LAKids, where he is both critic of and cheerleader for L.A. Unified
“I read it every single Sunday morning,” said Zimmer, who told me that Folsom “has an eye for when the emperor has no clothes.”
Zimmer, along with Folsom’s family, friends, and a who’s who of educators, administrators and education wonks, honored Folsom on Friday for his “tireless” and “tenacious” work.
Folsom, 68, insisted on leaving the hospital where he’d been admitted for the intense pain of a terminal illness. He did not want to miss the shindig — complete with jazz band — at a friend’s Art District loft.
Party over, Folsom is back to writing, serving, going to meetings, because his work is not finished.
When I asked him how it all began, Folsom clued me in on the little mix-up that launched his mission.
About 20 years ago, at Mt. Washington Elementary, Folsom’s daughter was assigned to kindergarten after he’d been promised a first-grade slot for her. He tried to get help from the principal, the district and a school board member.
Strike one, strike two, strike three.
So Folsom — who worked in TV and film production — held his breath, stepped to the edge of the abyss and dived head first into the murky depths of public education bureaucracy.
Soon he was the PTA president at Mt. Washington Elementary, where it came to his attention that the prehistoric copy machine was ready for the scrap heap.
“A school without a Xerox machine might as well not have a flagpole out front,” Folsom says.
He was told there was no money for a new one, and nobody seemed to know what to do about the problem. So he wrote a tongue-in-cheek ditty about the “little Xerox machine that could,” until it couldn’t.
Somehow it circulated around district headquarters. The bureaucrats got the point.
They found a used replacement.
Folsom later used the power of the pen to muse about one of the daffiest district experiences. If you want to get your child into, say, a particular magnet, you don’t apply to that magnet. Of course not. That would make sense.
Instead, you apply to schools you don’t want to get into. With each rejection, you compile points that can be cashed in — with luck, witchcraft, connections or who knows what — for assignment to the school of your choice.
“I made it a little funny,” says Folsom, “including information on what to do if you get accepted into a school you don’t want to be in.”
Folsom became obsessed with trying to make a difference, and perhaps was over-invested at times. His daughter asked if he could please not be PTA president at her high school, and Folsom wonders if he strained his marriage by volunteering more and more and earning less and less of an income.
But by then he had made the district his life’s work.
He knew that the majority of students were impoverished and attended falling-apart schools on year-round tracks, stuffed into overcrowded classrooms. So he became a member of the bond oversight committee and helped Romer and others bust through political and bureaucratic hurdles and build 130 new schools.
“He was one of the keys,” said Romer, “and we were on a remarkable roll. We built about $19 billion worth of schools.”
“Scott in large part made the building program possible, and he did it with this very unique combination of agitation, impatience and absolute commitment to his ideals. This is someone who has fought the bureaucracy and in many ways has won, but he also sees the very benefit of the institution he’s trying to change.”
As part of that mission, Folsom lobbied for every school to have a cafeteria, library and multipurpose room. He opposed former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s attempted takeover of L.A. Unified, and though he sees the attraction of charter schools, he saves his highest praise for the district’s magnet campuses.
In his 2009 Thanksgiving blog post, he wrote, “We hear too much chin music about how hard it is to get rid of a few bad teachers and administrators — and not near enough about how to honor the many, many good ones.”
He praised non-teaching staff, nurses who are “spread too thin,” those who “volunteer in the classroom and on the playground before and after school,” and “the students who work hard and make us proud.”
Cancer has spread to Folsom’s bones, but at his home in Hollywood early Tuesday morning, Folsom reminded me he had to cut our interview short because he had work to do. As he once put it, the job is to raise issues, raise awareness, raise hell.
He winced in pain, moving with the aid of a walker, eager to get to a meeting at school district headquarters.