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L.A. Breakup Plans Gather Head of Steam

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Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Unified School District seems misnamed. It reaches far beyond Los Angeles to include other cities miles away, and its residents are often far from unified.

It may not even remain a school district much longer, if a growing number of parents and activists have their way.

In recent months, several long-simmering grassroots efforts to break up, or break away from, this sprawling district have come to a boil, as a result of recent changes in state law. The movements have arisen in vastly different areas of the system's 708 square miles, from poor, inner-city neighborhoods to wealthy subdivisions in the San Fernando Valley.

About a half-dozen such movements are fairly well established, and other fledgling groups have started to meet.

Some seek freedom from a central administration and school board they contend ignore parents and neglect the needs of the district's 640,000 children. Others say that carving the lausd into smaller pieces would enable their children to attend schools closer to home.

What these various groups have in common is that their prospects for success look better than ever before.

"These proposals are coming, like it or not," said Mark Slavkin, the president of the Los Angeles Unified school board.

The board, he said, finds itself in "somewhat of a race." If its members are to keep the nation's second-largest district intact, their reforms must show results in time to dissuade voters from supporting the breakup measures.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan says he no longer believes the district can fix itself, and he views its dismantling as a necessary step.

"Programs come and go, but they never stick because the governance structure is so screwed up," Mr. Riordan said in a recent interview.

Racial Fault Lines

The California legislature passed a law this past summer that, beginning in January, substantially lowers the number of petition signatures needed to place a breakup proposal on a ballot within the lausd. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

The leaders of the breakup movements had viewed the old signature threshold--25 percent of the city's roughly 1.5 million registered voters--as hopelessly out of reach. As a result, they focused their efforts on changing the state law.

The new 8 percent threshold reduces the number of signatures needed within Los Angeles from about 386,000 to about 72,000--a figure many advocates believe is well within their reach.

The debate over dismantling the district already has exposed, and threatens to widen, fault lines between the district's racial and ethnic groups.

Some of those tensions came to a head one evening last month in the relatively affluent suburban area of Granada Hills, during a public forum at a branch of the Los Angeles public library.

A debate on the breakup proposals turned into a shouting match between state Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland and John S. Birke, a lawyer who is running for the seat Ms. Boland must vacate next year because of the state's term-limit law.

Mr. Birke, a Democrat, accused Ms. Boland, the Republican sponsor of the new state law, of pandering to racist and anti-immigrant parents who want their children out of the lausd because of its high percentage of minority students.

Ms. Boland strongly denied his accusations, and countered that breaking up the district is the only way to improve its schools.

The people alleging racism, she said later, "are those who want to see the breakup fail--the power brokers who want to keep kids under their thumbs."

Ruben R. Rodriguez, a social worker and an official of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Mexican-American Political Association, disagrees. He told the roughly 40 parents and activists at the Granada Hills forum that he views the breakup movements as an attempt to disenfranchise Hispanic parents.

"The motivation is not improving education," Mr. Rodriguez said. "Some of the people involved in this movement are the ones who don't want minority children coming into their area because they associate them with nothing but negatives."

No Single Plan

Not true, the leaders of the breakup movements argue. They note that the legislature also passed a companion measure to Ms. Boland's bill that prohibits division of the lausd in ways that would worsen racial segregation or funding inequities.

"We can't create enclaves of middle-class whites. That is a given," said Cecilia Mansfield, a leader of the 31st District Parent Teacher Student Association. The group covers the schools in the San Fernando Valley and has not yet taken a position on any breakup proposals.

Though many groups agree that the mammoth district should be divided, no single plan for how many new districts would emerge, or what they would look like, has gained wide acceptance.

The boundaries of the lausd have remained largely unchanged since 1947. The school system encompassed only 28 square miles when it was formed, as the Los Angeles School District, in 1853, but it expanded steadily over the next century.

If the district is dismantled, not all of the new districts would mirror Los Angeles Unified's demographics, said Robert L. Scott, a lawyer in Sherman Oaks and the chairman of Valley Advocates for Local Unified Education, a coalition of secessionists. But, he added, their smaller size would give them more flexibility to meet the needs of minority children.

Mr. Scott, a former chairman of the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley, said business leaders believe the district is failing to produce competent workers. "We are talking about people who, when they need to fill out a job application, need a friend to help them do it."

Battle Over Boundaries

Valley Advocates formed in response to an event that gave rise to most of the other secessionist movements: the race-based redrawing of Los Angeles Unified's voting districts after the 1990 U.S. Census.

Faced with a lawsuit by Hispanic activists, the Los Angeles City Council redrew the seven school board members' electoral districts to increase the number of majority-Hispanic wards from one to two. In doing so, it linked sections of the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin, and took away one of the valley's two seats on the school board.

Both sides of the secession debate agree that the valley has seen a large influx of minorities, and that the region has outgrown its reputation as a suburban refuge for wealthy whites.

Mr. Rodriguez of the Mexican-American Political Association said the areas joined by the redistricting have much in common, including, in some cases, closely linked Hispanic communities.

But secessionists contend that most areas linked by the redistricting remain separated by much more than mountains.

They argue that children in suburban Tarzana or Sherman Oaks are not well served by policies adopted with the East Los Angeles barrios in mind. And they question whether their interests are represented by board members who are elected mainly from the densely populated basin, and whose offices can be a 90-minute drive away.

The redistricting also angered parents in Lomita and Carson. The two cities are served by the lausd but had no say in the redrawing of the district map.

Breakup advocates throughout the school system also complain that, because of its sheer size, school board candidates cannot get elected without the backing of big organizations such as the Los Angeles teachers' union.

"A few people who are part of the power structure tend to be doing all of the financing," Mr. Scott said. "There is really no way for local grassroots people to find their way into leadership."

Union Under Fire

Though they may not have much else in common with many of their suburban counterparts, organizers of the secession movement in South Central Los Angeles agree on that point.

The union has become a chief focus of breakup efforts in this predominantly Hispanic and black section of the city, where streets with well-kept homes and stately trees adjoin others marred by boarded windows and graffiti.

The South Central breakup movement's leaders say the school board is controlled largely by the United Teachers of Los Angeles. The board seems preoccupied with keeping teachers happy, they say, at the expense of poor and minority children.

They have won the support of their local school board member, Barbara Boudreaux. One Sunday afternoon last month, she SAT down in the living room of a small house in South Central with leaders of the effort.

The 32,000-member union local has "gotten to the point where they feel they make all of the decisions for the district," Ms. Boudreaux said, "and where other unions don't exist, where parents don't exist, where children don't exist."

Clinton Simmons, a local activist who hosted the gathering, said teachers in the area care little about parents' concerns.

"Our kids are completely neglected in terms of education," said Mr. Simmons, an engineer who recalled visiting the schools of his three children, now grown, to battle principals and teachers on their behalf.

Helen Bernstein, the president of the utla, said breakup proponents are misguided if they believe they can escape the union's influence by forming new districts. "State law does not let people decide who represents teachers," Ms. Bernstein said. "Teachers decide."

The union opposes the breakup of the lausd, she said, because members believe it would threaten their health benefits and pensions, which are administered by the district's central office.

She said new districts would require new district bureaucracies--thus strengthening one of the very forces the secessionists claim to be fighting against.

"The problems of L.A. Unified are economic and social problems," Ms. Bernstein said. "They are not a size problem."

Mr. Slavkin, the school board president, said the breakup efforts reflect "an obsession with the politics of education, rather than what goes on in the schools." He noted that many of the breakup movement's leaders are running for office and have made calls to dismantle the district part of their platforms.

Breaking the lausd into smaller districts--with potentially meddlesome, hands-on school boards--threatens the independence schools have gained through recent reforms, he said.

But Ms. Mansfield, of the San Fernando Valley's ptsa, said many parents do not trust the district to sustain reform. ~~"Superintendents come and go. Board members come and go," she said. "If the board can give that kind of autonomy, they can take it away."

'Incredibly Complicated'

Although the leaders of the various movements trade news and advice, they have no formal links.

Ms. Boland and Mayor Riordan said they are working with the groups to create a single breakup plan. The mayor has asked experts from the University of California at Los Angeles to help guide activists through the process, which he described as "incredibly complicated."

Along with the signatures, the new law requires that those proposing a new district provide county officials with maps of the proposed boundaries and their rationale for drawing them.

A committee appointed by the county supervisors would then assess the proposed district's viability and weigh a host of other consideration, such as racial makeup and equitable distribution of resources.

County officials would then submit a recommendation to the state school board, which would decide whether to put the proposal on the affected area's ballot.

And, although it opposes the idea, the lausd school board has also sought a voice in the process in an effort to influence any potential breakup plan. It has asked its staff to draft criteria for judging breakup proposals.

Ms. Mansfield said she welcomed the board's involvement, because viable proposals will need detailed district data on enrollment, expenditures, and facilities.

But some breakup supporters say the influence of the district's central school board is the very thing parents want to escape.

"We no longer need their approval to break away," said Tarzana parent Stephanie Carter.

Wooing the Alienated

Even opponents of the breakup efforts agree that at least some are likely to succeed.

Farthest along in the process are Lomita and Carson. The two incorporated cities, located in the southern portion of the district, could have secession proposals ballots within two or three years.

"The time has come for us to take charge of the education of our own children," said Carolyn I. Harris, the head of the Carson Unified School District Formation Committee, as she gathered signatures at a city park on a recent Sunday afternoon.

As a parent, Ms. Harris has long believed the district neglects schools in her city, which as a population of about 84,000. She angrily recalled how several fire-damaged classrooms in a Carson middle school went more than a year without repairs, and how other schools lack working plumbing and toilet paper.

Robert T. Hargrave, the chairman of the Committee to Unify Lomita's Schools, said only half the city's 4,000 school-age children attend lausd schools. Many of the rest, he said, go to private schools.

Many parents in the bedroom community of about 20,000 object to what they believe are inappropriate and intrusive district policies on social issues such as birth control and the teaching of tolerance for homosexuals, he said.

"I have talked to parents who have their kids in other schools," Mr. Hargrave said. "And they have said, 'As soon as you form your own school district, we will send them back to Lomita schools."'

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