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Bill To Make 'Breakup' of L.A. District Easier Clears

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Proponents of breaking up the sprawling Los Angeles school system have won their first legislative victory in nearly 30 years of trying.

California lawmakers sent Gov. Pete Wilson legislation last month that would make it easier for communities to secede from the Los Angeles Unified system--with 640,000 students, the nation's second largest--and form their own districts. Mr. Wilson is expected to sign the so-called breakup bill.

In separate action, the Governor announced last week that he and legislative leaders had agreed on a budget that would include California schools' first increase in state aid in four years.

The breakup bill would reduce the number of signatures required on a petition to put before voters any proposal to split the Los Angeles district. While such a proposal could be a master plan for reorganizing the entire district, it is more likely that individual communities would try to set up their own districts, according to the bill's supporters. The 708-square-mile district includes the city of Los Angeles and such surrounding communities as Carson and West Hollywood.

Collecting the signatures for such a ballot initiative would be easy, critics of the bill said, but it would be much harder to win the required approval of state and local governments and then voters' endorsement.

State and federal laws pose hurdles to the creation of a new school district that could take communities years to clear, said Mark Slavkin, the president of the Los Angeles school board.

"It won't be easy for them," he predicted. "We're going to be here for a long time in our current form."

Linda K. Jones, one of the leaders of a San Fernando Valley parents' group that supported the bill, agreed. She would have preferred more radical legislation considered in previous years that mandated a breakup.

But she hailed the bill's passage as the first step to creating districts that are more responsive to local communities such as hers.

"The only way to get out from under this bureaucracy is to break this baby up," Ms. Jones said.

A Legislative Perennial

The notion of splitting up the district was first raised in the legislature in 1968. But the only proposal to win legislative approval--a bill to study the issue and recommend dividing the district into 12 or 24 units--was vetoed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970.

This year, Republican Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland, who represents voters in the San Fernando Valley, an area within the school district, drafted a bill to reduce the number of signatures required to get a breakup proposal on the ballot. She proposed the threshold be set at 8 percent of the votes cast in a given locality in the 1994 governor's race.

Current law sets a threshold of 25 percent of the registered voters in a locality for such an initiative.

'Bumper Sticker' Appeal

Los Angeles school officials said they assumed from the beginning of the legislative session that G.O.P. gains in the Assembly in last fall's elections meant that they did not have the votes to stop the bill.

In recent years, breakup bills were blocked by the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Willie Brown, the party's powerful leader who turned over his position as the chamber's speaker to a Republican earlier this year.

In the new political alignment, Los Angeles school lobbyists focused on making sure that any new district would have to address concerns of minority students and meet court orders, said Santiago Jackson, a district lobbyist.

"It was like: The train is coming," he said. "The question is: Do you want to lie down in front of it, or do you want to step aside and make the best of what is coming?"

Sen. Tom Hayden, a Democrat, crafted a companion bill--also approved by the legislature--that requires any reorganization of the Los Angeles district to meet various standards, including laws regarding desegregation and equitable funding.

Mr. Wilson must sign both Mr. Hayden's bill and Ms. Boland's bill for either to become law.

Some of the same rhetoric that propelled these bills to legislative success should help the ballot initiatives, Ms. Jones said.

Supporters of the legislation circulated fact sheets among legislators, for example, that pointed out that if the Los Angeles district were a state, its population of more than four million people would be the 22nd largest in the country.

Such facts have "bumper sticker" appeal, Mr. Slavkin said, but persuading voters to approve a new district will be much harder than arguing that the Los Angeles district is too big. "Voters are smart enough to ask whether this means more bureaucracy and more duplication," he said.

Budget Deal

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, appear to have settled a school-funding feud that has contributed to the monthlong delay in passing a fiscal 1996 budget. At issue has been $800 million that Mr. Wilson said schools owed the state as partial payment of a 1992 loan. School officials said the money was not a loan.

The settlement, if approved by the full legislature, would require districts to repay only half of the money and then spread the payments over eight years, according to school lobbyists.

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