Amid Uncertainty, Los Angeles Board Approves Reform Plan

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The Los Angeles board of education last week unanimously approved a wide-ranging reform plan that has been touted as the last, best hope for revitalizing the troubled district.

The 7-to-0 vote, however, came amid continuing concern over both the district's financial condition and the details of the recent agreement averting a strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles.

The plan created by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, a community and business group representing more than 600 organizations, calls for budget and decisionmaking authority to be moved to the schools. Principals, it says, will be the "decision leaders'' of the schools and will be held accountable for their results.

The plan also calls for fundamental changes in student learning and assessment, professional development, parent involvement, social services, transitions from school to the workplace, facilities, and finance. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

Mike Roos, the president of LEARN, called the board's approval of the plan historic.

"The fact is that in this community, for the first time that anyone can remember, everybody is really on the same page of the book,'' he said. "There is consensus on what we must do, how to do it, and how to behave toward one another--at least at the leadership level--and that's important.''

The implementation of the plan is expected to begin this summer in three clusters of schools, each composed of a high school and the schools that feed students into it.

The $3 million cost for the project will be raised from private sources, Mr. Roos said. About $2 million of that amount will be spent to train teachers and principals.

The rest of the money will pay for coordinators to work with the three clusters, more counselors in the schools, and new student assessments, according to LEARN.

Conflict With Contract?

Although the LEARN document is viewed as the board's official policy, there is much disagreement over whether it will mesh with the provisions of the new teaching contract hammered out by Willie L. Brown Jr., the Speaker of the California Assembly.

The most controversial aspects of the pact give elementary teachers the right to pick what grade they will teach, based on seniority. In multi-track, year-round schools, teachers can select their grade, subject level, and track assignments based on seniority.

Some district officials argue that giving teachers such discretion contradicts LEARN's intention of putting principals in charge of schools.

Eli Brent, the president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the principals' union, argued that under such a situation it would be unfair to hold principals accountable.

"If they want to give us our paychecks and they run the school--it's a U.T.L.A. school--then just say it,'' he said. "But we don't want the parents coming to us complaining. This is not a factory where the person with the most seniority puts in the widgets.''

But Mr. Roos dismissed such concerns as a "red herring.''

He and Catherine M. Carey, the spokeswoman for the teachers' union, said the union will grant waivers from the contract to allow the first LEARN schools to operate free of contractual restraints. A similar procedure is now used for school-based-management sites, they noted.

"The LEARN school will determine whether or not to do the assignments in the contract,'' Ms. Carey said.

The union spokeswoman also noted that principals will retain the right to write the descriptions for positions and to determine the qualifications teachers must have to fill them.

Barbara Boudreaux, a school board member who is a former principal, said she was not satisfied with the waiver provision.

"I still do not believe we will be getting waivers for all the schools that would enter into the LEARN plan,'' she said.

To clarify such concerns, Superintendent Sid Thompson and Helen Bernstein, the president of the U.T.L.A., met last week in Sacramento with Mr. Brown. They were expected to agree on final language for the contract late last week.

Ms. Carey said the meetings were not expected to result in any substantive changes to the agreement.

In addition to restoring 2 percent of the 12 percent pay cut over two years imposed on teachers and other union members, the pact contains a number of other provisions sought by the union, including guaranteed pay increases for members if the district receives any new money; cash bonuses to employees who do not use all their sick days; a guarantee of 10 percent bonuses for U.T.L.A. members if other bargaining units are given the same raises as teachers; and bonsues equivalent to the amount of the pay cuts for retiring teachers.

The union also will design and contract for its members' health and welfare plans and will take responsibility for all professional-development activities.

The contract also relieves teachers of having to use a special format for lesson plans, requires the district to inform teachers in writing of student transfers for disciplinary reasons, and gives union members greater access to telephones, restrooms, lounges, lunch areas, and parking spaces.

The agreement also calls for the district to allow the union to participate in and review an audit of its management operations that is now under way.

The audit was proposed last fall by Mark Slavkin, a school board member, to try to put to rest persistent questions about whether the district is managing its resources and personnel efficiently.

The district is spending $500,000 to have the accounting firm Arthur Andersen & Company review its central functions. The firm's report is due in mid-May.

No Word on Funding

Perhaps most importantly, there still was no word last week on how the district will pay for the contract, which is estimated to cost $36 million this year and next.

Initially, officials had said they would use the district's $31 million reserve fund to pay for the agreement this year.

Mr. Brown had pledged to secure waivers to allow the district to use state aid set aside for textbooks, bilingual education, and counseling services to pay for the contract next year.

But early this month, officials learned that a drop in property-tax collections would cost the district an additional $20 million.

Because of the shortfall, members of the board of education voted last week to send layoff notices to more than 500 employees, most of whom are attendance counselors, librarians, nurses, and music teachers.

The Assembly Speaker also has proposed creating a federal urban-renewal pilot program in South Central Los Angeles, the site of last year's riots, and diverting some of the money for that effort to the school district.

Mr. Brown and other members of the California legislature traveled to Washington to meet with President Clinton on March 10. Although Mr. Brown broached the urban-renewal-project idea at that time, the visit was overshadowed by news that nine military bases in California are scheduled to be closed.

Maureen DiMarco, the secretary of child development and education for Gov. Pete Wilson, said last week that Mr. Brown had not requested any waivers to allow the district to redirect its earmarked state funds.

But if he does, she added, there is "serious doubt'' they would be granted. Allowing the district to use the restricted money as it wants would require approval from the state legislature, she said, rather than the state board of education. She added that such waivers would conflict with a law designed to insure that districts are fiscally solvent.

"This is beyond a mess,'' Ms. DiMarco said. "It's verging on Byzantine.''

In order to open schools on time in September, she noted, the district must not only find the $36 million to pay for the teachers' contract, but also restore a 1 percent budget reserve as required by state law.

If it cannot come up with the money, the county office of education could take over the district.

The continuing uncertainty has created a gloomy atmosphere, Mr. Brent said.

"It's a catastrophe for a school district that was once a showplace,'' he said. "It has now become a place people run away from. It's a sad commentary.''

Vol. 12, Issue 26

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