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Remember the iPads? L.A. Unified needs more transparency and caution on reorganization

Remember the iPads? L.A. Unified needs more transparency and caution on reorganization
LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner speaks at Jordan High School on Sept. 7. (Los Angeles Times)

Even as Los Angeles Unified schools prepare for a possible teachers strike, Supt. Austin Beutner is planning a massive administrative restructuring that has the teachers union on guard. Beutner’s main idea is to pull more staff out from the central office to create 32 smaller networks of schools, with more personnel placed on school campuses. The change will make the district more nimble, he says, so that when a school needs something, it doesn’t have to wait a long time for its request to work its way through the district’s massive downtown headquarters.

Other pieces of the proposal are meant to bring about more efficiency. Right now, Beutner says, there are various types of specialized counselors helping students. One might counsel homeless kids, another might be an expert on navigating the district’s graduation requirements, and so forth — but each school gets just a few hours a week of each counselor’s time. Needs don’t always coincide with those few hours, so Beutner’s idea is to have the counselors cross-trained in all the specializations. These more broadly trained counselors could then be located at individual schools at or near full time.

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Another plan would drastically reduce the number of vendors the district works with, to cut down on time-consuming paperwork and enable the district to negotiate better prices. Principals would go through a training academy and be empowered to make more purchasing and other decisions for their schools.

From what little Beutner has sketched out about the planned changes, it sounds as though they could benefit the district. The slowness of the behemoth Beaudry Avenue bureaucracy is certainly legendary. At this point, though, the plans are far too light on details, even though Beutner said he intended to begin rolling them out in February or March. That sounds awfully fast for a major restructuring that hasn’t yet been formally presented to the board or the public.

Remember the iPads! That should be the motto for these situations. Former L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy had a similarly bold proposal to provide an expensive tablet computer to every student in the district. That plan was similarly short on details. In a way, it was lucky that the predictable problems popped up so quickly, so the district could call a halt before hundreds of millions of dollars were squandered.

The recent history of L.A. Unified has been one of quicksilver changes that rarely deliver the sparkling results they are supposed to bring. Principals were given more power to spend money — until the board found out that some of them were scrimping on janitorial services, resulting in filthy campuses. Graduation requirements were jacked high — until it turned out that close to half of the students wouldn’t be able to graduate. Then the requirements were lowered and questionable online credit recovery courses were brought in to help students meet them. Authority was centralized, then decentralized, then back again.

The district needs to be much more transparent about the reorganization plans and to phase them in slowly if Beutner’s effort is to avoid a repeat of that sad pattern.

To start, a proposal with this many moving parts needs to be unveiled publicly and officially, in full detail, with plenty of time for teachers, parents and the public at large to chew on it and add their thoughts before the school board considers it. There will certainly be at least a couple of board meetings on this, with opportunity for the public to speak, but it will take more than that for the public to understand the plans fully and respond to them thoughtfully.

One major drumbeat for United Teachers Los Angeles has been the desire to make teachers bigger partners in district policymaking. Although some of their demands on that front aren’t reasonable, their feedback on Beutner’s reorganization plans would bring valuable perspective and should be sought out and welcomed.

Then the resulting plans must be implemented slowly — starting with pilot programs and building gradually, with regular assessments to find out how well things are working and to fix unforeseen problems before expanding the effort. For example, it makes sense at first glance to have specialized counselors available whenever they’re needed instead of one morning a week, but what if these new jack-of-all-trades counselors lack the expertise to be effective?

New superintendents understandably want to put their stamp on the district with sweeping changes, and Beutner is no exception. The key is to make sure that his plans are so transparent, well thought out and carefully implemented that the next administration isn’t left with the job of cleaning up the messes that ensue.

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