Chaos, dysfunction and the L.A. Unified school board

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During a special meeting Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified school board will try to figure out how the district should spend more than $113 million in one-time funding to get teachers and students ready for the Common Core curriculum, the new standards in English and math that are to go into effect next year and that emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization.

Great idea. Or it would be a great idea if the board hadn’t spent more than an hour last Tuesday discussing the minutiae of the very same issue and reaching no conclusion. And if it hadn’t already tackled the same issue a couple of months before that.

The problem goes far beyond prepping for a new curriculum; the newly configured school board is at risk of falling into chaos and dysfunction if it doesn’t quickly figure out its proper role. The pro-reform board majority cobbled together by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has dissolved; its two staunchest believers now speak with obvious irritation and frustration about the board’s doings, but they have little power to change anything. Their union-friendly opponents on the board sound as though they are trying to create jobs programs for employees rather than educational opportunities for students. The less ideologically defined board members meander through painfully convoluted discussions of their concerns.


In other words, the board isn’t acting like a board. It seems eager to meddle in the district’s day-to-day operations but ignorant of how to do so. Many times at last week’s meeting, both Supt. John Deasy and his deputy, Jaime Aquino, asked the board for direction on what it wanted the administrative staff to do. None was forthcoming. By the end of the week, Aquino had resigned, citing the board’s micromanagement as well as its move away from the reform agenda.

At a meeting over the summer, the board was dissatisfied with Deasy and Aquino’s plan for Common Core funding, which called for elevating more than 100 high-performing teachers to coaching positions in which they would train other teachers in the new curriculum. The board wanted to put more money directly into schools’ hands so that principals and teachers could spend it according to their own priorities. That was reasonable, and Deasy followed through, so the board should have been ready to vote on the plan last week. Instead, the superintendent was showered with a series of new, nitpicky questions.

A period of adjustment for the new L.A. Unified board was almost inevitable. It is less in sync with Deasy, a committed reformer, than the last one was. Also, after Villaraigosa super-ally Monica Garcia’s ham-handed years as president, the members who weren’t part of her “in” group are clearly reveling in their new power. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the new president, Richard Vladovic, no doubt needed a bit of time to figure out his role.

But that period must end now. Action on the Common Core transition spending is overdue. The board needs to pass the plan, which reasonably balances money for individual schools and a centrally run training program. It must entrust the superintendent, who overall has been doing an excellent job of moving L.A. Unified’s creaky bureaucracy forward, with the job of carrying it out. And the board must do that without looking over Deasy’s shoulder to monitor every hire and every word of the job descriptions.

As noted, this isn’t just about Common Core. The pattern of micromanagement — accompanied at board meetings by long-winded, self-aggrandizing monologues — is spilling into other areas, including the district’s operating budget of more than $6 billion. Vladovic should pull the board back on track before this behavior becomes a habit and a troubling hallmark of his leadership.

Earlier in the summer, the board majority was unhappy with how Deasy was planning to spend new funds that were coming from the state after years of financial drought. In theory, that’s fine. Setting priorities for the expenditure of new money is a key board responsibility.


But that’s not what the board has been doing. Instead, resolutions have been popping up randomly. At last week’s meeting, one would have funded some uncertain level of “sequential” arts education; the wording was confusing, and it wasn’t clear how much money was involved. Another resolution called for beefing up physical education in elementary schools.

That’s not how coherent budgets are born. The board needs to figure out its priorities, because even with new funding, the district won’t have anything close to the money needed to fulfill each member’s dreams. The board also needs to take Deasy’s concerns and advice into consideration; that’s why it has an expert running the district. Even though hiring staff and expanding programs are more fun, the district has to set aside at least some money (as Deasy has proposed) to reduce its structural deficit. Then it should direct Deasy to devise a budget for its approval that reflects the board’s priorities.

The California School Boards Assn. runs training courses for board members, and L.A. Unified’s board should sign up. Fast. Members need to learn how to listen to the superintendent at the same time that they question some of his proposals, lest Deasy also quit in frustration. They need to do their homework, organize their thinking, put forth well-reasoned and researched resolutions, treat one another with respect and cultivate a board culture of efficiency. This is School Board 101.