L.A.'s Autos-for-Administrators Policy Drawing Scrutiny

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The Los Angeles teachers' union has asked school employees to boycott after-school activities to protest a long-time district policy that provides more than 200 administrators and board members with cars.

For the past decade, the Los Angeles Unified School District's top officials and board members have been provided with take-home vehicles that are repaired, maintained, and cleaned at district expense, according to the district's spokesman, Marty S. Estrin.

Superintendent of Schools Leonard M. Britton is also provided with a chauffeur-body guard to drive to meetings and events. Last year, that employee earned a salary of $90,733, including $44,603 in overtime pay, Mr. Estrin said.

The district's free-vehicle practices came under scrutiny this month in the wake of local press reports.

Catherine M. Carey, a spokesman for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, said last week that the policy raises questions about the district's priorities at a time when complaints about insufficient funding in the schools have been widespread.

Negotiations over a new contract for teachers have been stalled for the past seven months, according to Ms. Carey, because officials claim the district cannot afford the 12 percent salary increase proposed by the union.

"It's not that they don't have enough money," the union spokes4man argued. "It's that they choose to spend the money on chauffeurs and cars."

The minimum salary level for teachers in Los Angeles is $23,000, which ranks 11th among teacher salaries in Los Angeles County, Ms. Carey said. The nationwide average is $28,031.

Los Angeles superintendents and administrators are among the highest-paid in the county. In fact, with an annual salary of $141,080, Mr. Britton is the second-highest paid public official in state and local government. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1988.)

Cheaper Than Reimbursement

Herbert Graham, director of administrative services, defended the transportation policy, saying that it was not only necessary in a district that spans 750 square miles, but also cheaper than reimbursing school employees for use of their own cars.

"The district has reviewed this policy periodically, and we have8found that it is really to the district's advantage," he said.

Budget officials were unable to provide the total cost of the transportation policy last last week, saying that the information was not readily available.

School administrators and board members are often expected to be available to attend school functions and meetings during off hours, Mr. Graham noted.

"This policy allows individuals to go out to various events without concern for parking a vehicle at night in places where they wouldn't park their personal vehicle," he noted.

About half of the employees who use the take-home cars are area bus supervisors, who each travel around the district monitoring the transportation for about 30,000 children, according to Mr. Graham.

'Honor System'

The seven school-board members, 56 administrators, and 51 top-ranking school-security officials entitled to vehicles mostly earn between $65,000 and $141,080 annually, Mr. Estrin said. A few are paid less than $65,000.

Those employees also are provided with gasoline credit cards, but the cars are usually filled up at a garage at district headquarters. City mechanics at the garage also handle routine maintenance and repairs.

The take-home cars--all American-made four-door sedans--are equipped with two-way radios, and 40 of the vehicles also have car phones. Last year, phone bills for the board members alone topped $10,000, the spokesman confirmed.

Mr. Estrin said the radios and phones were necessary, not only because of the amount of time the officials spend on the road in the Los Angeles area, but also because of the threat of an earthquake hitting while an official is in the field.

Mr. Graham said the district relies on an "honor code" system to ensure that its cars are not driven for personal use. The mileage on the cars is checked periodically by district mechanics, he said.

The cars' license plates also mark them as official vehicles. Mr. Graham argued that citizens would call the district and complain if they saw public vehicles parked in front of a disco late at night, or somewhere "suspicious."

Car Policies Elsewhere

Other large districts, especially those in urban areas, have similar transportation policies for school administrators, but none as extensive as Los Angeles's.

In a 1980 National School Boards Association survey of 1,400 members, 3 percent said they had school-owned vehicles at their disposal; 1 percent said they were also provided with a driver.

In New York City, XX cars are available for the chancellor, top school officials, and board members for official business, according to Robert Terte, spokesman for the school board.

The chancellor also has a driver-body guard who earns $XX,000. Drivers, or school security officers, are available to officials who do not have a driver's license, a fairly common phenomenon in New York City, according to Mr. Terte.

Most of the vehicles are kept in the district pool, and only used when needed. Officials only take vehicles home when attending early-morning, or late-night meetings, Mr. Terte said.

The Boston school system provides take-home cars to seven top administrators. The 13-member school committee has the use of one car, which is available at district headquarters, according to Ian Forman, the district's spokesman.

In Chicago, the district leases a car, and pays a chauffeur-body guard $27,000 a year to drive the superintendent to meetings, according to its spokesman, Ken Masson.

School security officers--often off-duty policemen--are also available to serve as chauffeurs or body guards for school-board members, but the policemen must use their own vehicles, Mr. Masson said. Mileage is reimbursed, he added.

'Abuse of Public Funds'

In Detroit, however, the use of public funds to transport school officials came under severe scrutiny this year, and state lawmakers responded with a measure to stop what one called "clear abuse of public funds."

State Senator Gilbert DiNello, whose district includes East Detroit, discovered last year that school officials spent about $400,000 renting limousines and using school employees as chauffeurs, a staff aide said.

The senator introduced a bill--signed into law in June--that bars school districts from hiring limousines or drivers, or using employees as chauffeurs, with public funds.

"This was a luxury program that was completely unjustified," Marty Musser, legislative assistant to Mr. DiNello, said of Detroit's policy. "We're talking about a school system that was helplessly in debt."

Even after the bill's passage, school-board members continued to rent limos, Mr. Musser added. It was not until the state denied a loan request from the district, and withheld appropriated funds, that school officials agreed to comply.

A spokesman for the district said about six district-owned cars are still available to school-board members,2p4but they must drive themselves.

In sprawling Dade County, theformer district of Mr. Britton in Los Angeles, there are no district-owned cars available. Officials must use their own cars for official business and they are reimbursed for mileage costs, a spokesman said.

School officials in Dallas--where board members are not even paid--expressed shock at the thought of using school funds to pay for official cars.

"That would be a red flag to taxpayers. They would never put up with that," said a district spokesman, Rodney Davis, who noted that officials use their own cars and mileage costs are reimbursed.

"My general feeling is that money like that should go toward instruction," said Otto M. Fridia, Dallas's former acting superintendent.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Mr. Graham said there were no plans to change the transportation policy.

"If it benefits the district and not the individual, why should we change?" he said.

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