Used furniture for school kids

ROGER LOWENSTEIN is the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Koreatown.

IF ANYONE NEEDED evidence of the chronic underfunding of public education in Los Angeles, one only had to show up at 8 a.m. Saturday morning at Creative Artists Agency’s world headquarters in Beverly Hills.

The talent agency, about to move into new offices in Century City, offered its castoff office furniture to the Los Angeles Unified School District. The line of 400 administrators, principals, assistant principals and teachers stretched around CAA’s massive marble building on Wilshire Boulevard. Each person would be allowed to place tags on five pieces of furniture. As executive director of a public charter school, I jumped at the opportunity too. My school was No. 109.

As we waited outside, the mood was festive. L.A. Unified administrators caught up with old friends. Bert Ball, founder of L.A. Shares, the nonprofit that organized the furniture giveaway, handed out muffins. Someone in a passing car asked what the line was for. I said it was for Barry Manilow tickets.

At 8:30 or so, one representative from each of the first 100 schools were allowed into the building. By 9, the next 100 — my group — were let in and organized into smaller groups of 20.

My group was led to a nearby building where CAA had rented space on two floors. We wandered through offices to tag our five items. The artwork, computers, photocopiers and much of the furniture were marked with a piece of blue masking tape, indicating that they were off-limits. Because some of my teachers’ classrooms are used for Sunday school, and anything that isn’t nailed down might disappear, I tagged a few locking metal file cabinets. Because we don’t have a library in our high school, I also tagged a tiny wooden bookcase, the only one I saw.

By 10:30 a.m., I was on my way home. On the way out, I overheard one principal in the elevator grumble that she had driven from Redondo Beach and waited in line starting at 6:30 a.m., and she only got into the CAA annex. But most folks were grateful for the tables, desks or chairs. No one expected that the needs of the nation’s second-largest school district could be dented even by one of the world’s most powerful talent agencies.

The subtext of the event was, however, terribly sad. Here were 400 dedicated administrators giving up a Saturday morning to get a few free used office furnishings because their government — local, state and federal — has chosen not to adequately fund public education. The woman next to me in line was hoping for a table to put in a room where parents meet with special education specialists. One can only guess where they meet now. And these are folks from a school district with an annual budget of $6.8 billion.

Charter schools like mine are in a far worse situation. It’s an unusual privilege to be given the right to create a public school, but we’re forced to do it on a shoestring. Our middle school, which outperforms the other schools in its neighborhood, meets in part of a 1920s church building; our high school is in half of an EconoLodge hotel.

Proposition 39, which lowered the percentage of votes needed to pass school bonds, also required L.A. Unified to provide charter schools with “reasonably equivalent” facilities. I dutifully apply for money and space every year, and every year my request is ignored. My school and 15 others were awarded millions from Proposition 55 bonds, but none have yet to see a dime of that money. I applied for part of Measure K and Measure R local bond funds earmarked for charter schools, but L.A. Unified wants all of that nearly $100 million for itself, apparently to pay for cost overruns for its schools under construction.

I need textbooks, a library, a school bus, secure classrooms, any outdoor space, an athletic program, teachers’ aides, a school counselor, an SAT prep class and more. But for the moment I’ll take a locking file cabinet.