Drive To Divide Up L.A. District Sparks Concerns

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The leader of the California Senate has launched a drive to attack the massive problems of the Los Angeles Unified School District by breaking it into a number of smaller districts.

Coming as the district struggles with severe fiscal, administrative, and labor problems--and in a metropolitan area where racial tensions continue to smolder in the wake of last spring's riots--the proposal has generated heated controversy.

President pro tem of the Senate David A. Roberti has said he will devote the remaining two years of his term to pushing state legislation to divide the 641,206-student district, the nation's second largest.

The shape of the new districts that would result from Mr. Roberti's campaign, however, is still unclear.

One scenario suggests that the system be broken into seven segments, so that no district would have more than 100,000 students.

Officials of the state education department, meanwhile, have suggested that the system be divided into some 30 districts of about 15,000 to 25,000 students each.

That size district is "large enough to benefit from certain economies of scale and programmatic articulation and small enough to respond to local needs and foster real community identity,'' Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Robert Agee testified at a Senate education committee hearing this month.

Districts would be made up of two high schools and their feeder elementary and secondary schools.

Still others have proposed that districts be even smaller--a single high school and its feeder schools.

'The Atmosphere Is Atrocious'

Regardless of the exact shape of the new districts, many observers expect that a breakup would lead to separation of the poor, predominantly minority inner-city population from the more affluent residents of the San Fernando Valley.

Mr. Roberti's emergence as the leading crusader for a breakup has given potency to the movement and attracted intense public interest.

Hundreds of residents and a dozen lawmakers showed up at the Senate committee hearing in Los Angeles.

"If you use the hearing as a gauge, the pro tem is capable of getting a majority of members,'' said Sen. Diane Watson, a committee member from Los Angeles.

A poll published by the Los Angeles Times this month indicated that 54 percent of area residents believed that a breakup would help the district, while 36 percent said the action would be unproductive.

The last time lawmakers seriously dealt with dividing the district was in the early 1970's, when a breakup bill passed the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Two decades later, some officials contend that change is urgent.

"The desperation level has reached unprecedented proportions,'' said Roberta Weintraub, a member of the Los Angeles school board.

The conditions of the district are such that "everybody feels helpless and hopeless,'' Ms. Weintraub said."The atmosphere is atrocious.''

State officials also stress that reorganization is essential. "In its present form,'' Mr. Agee testified, the district "does not appear to be able to deliver the educational services that students need.''

But others question the timing and motivation of the proposal.

Racial Polarization Feared

"You just have to wonder aloud why are they making the thrust at this time when we have our first African-American acting superintendent and our first female minority board president,'' Ms. Watson said.

"We have the impending teachers' strike and the impending Rodney King trial, the Reginald Denny trial,'' said Senator Watson, referring to the black motorist allegedly beaten by police and the white truck driver allegedly beaten by minority assailants during the riots that erupted after a jury acquitted police in the first King trial.

"How do we bring the city together in peace and harmony? Do we segregate into our own little enclaves, or do we reach out into the distance?'' she said. "The [breakup] is a bad move. It looks like they want to wash their hands of our inner-city youth.''

Sen. Gary Hart, the chairman of the education panel, said he had mixed feelings about splitting the district. While acknowledging public support for a breakup, he expressed concern that it might lead to more ethnic and racial polarization.

"There are a lot of kids who live in the inner city who have no schools,'' he said. "If you break up the district, what happens to those kids?''

According to school officials, some 19,000 students currently are bused from the inner city to outlying areas because of crowding.

In a preliminary review of a potential breakup, Richard K. Mason, the special counsel to Sydney A. Thompson, the acting Los Angeles superintendent, outlined numerous issues that would have to be considered.

Along with crowding and transportation, Mr. Mason noted concerns over desegregation, special education, employee transfers, collective bargaining, facilities, and finances.

"I'm not going to tell you it's going to be easy to do,'' Ms. Weintraub said. "I would suggest, first of all, there has to be the will to do it.''

More L.A.U.S.D.'s?

Some parties suggest that what has been missing from the discussion are the needs of students.

"What the proponents are not doing is looking at the core causes for the problems we find ourselves with,'' said Helen Bernstein, the president of United Teachers-Los Angeles.

"Until they do,'' she said, "all they are going to do is duplicate more districts that look like the L.A.U.S.D.''

She said a better way to improve the system would be a plan proposed by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now.

The LEARN plan, formally presented to the Los Angeles school board last week, advocates school-based management to improve learning.

LEARN's response to Mr. Roberti's proposal indicates it does not embrace the concept of a breakup.

"Merely creating more centralized, bureaucratic, top-down structures will produce more of the same results,'' the group said in a statement.

Vol. 12, Issue 21

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