School & District Management

L.A. Board Votes to Trim Subdistrict Offices

By Jeff Archer — June 16, 2004 4 min read
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After a pitched battle that exposed a deep rift in management philosophy, the Los Angeles school board took a budget ax to the district’s regional administrative zones last week.

At a packed meeting, and with members of the local teachers’ union protesting outside, the board voted 5-2 on June 8 to reduce the number of “local districts” from 11 to eight. The size of the staff in each district office could shrink from more than 100 employees to fewer than 60.

The plan marks a compromise offered by Superintendent Roy Romer, who had wanted to preserve all of the district offices, which he argues play an important role in driving instructional improvement. United Teachers Los Angeles, which helped elect a majority of the school board’s members, had called for the virtual elimination of the regional offices, which union leaders describe as a “bloated bureaucracy.”

“This will save money and make us leaner and more focused,” Mr. Romer said in a statement after last week’s vote.

Despite the accord, the months-long debate leading up to it revealed a split in thinking among top leaders about central elements of the strategy for raising achievement in the 746,000-student Los Angeles Unified system. Criticism of the local districts focused not just on their expense, but also on their function.

“The original purpose of the mini-districts was to give parents and community members better access to this administrative structure,” board member Jon Lauritzen said in an interview. “But under Superintendent Romer, we have gone the other way, and all the policies and instructional pedagogy are being directed from top down, and the local schools have very little input.”

Expected to save $24 million, the consolidation is one of scores of cost-cutting measures undertaken by the Los Angeles school board in recent months as it has sought to close a $500 million gap in the district’s $5.7 billion budget. About 500 non-teaching positions were eliminated earlier this spring, but none of the previous cuts prompted as much debate as last week’s changes to the local districts.

Union Sees ‘Fat Cats’

The 11-region configuration dates back to 2000, when then-interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines created it as a way to bring administrative services closer to the school level. Each regional office includes its own superintendent, school supervisors, and curriculum specialists, along with support-staff members.

Rowena Lagrosa, the superintendent of local District H in eastern Los Angeles, argues that the structure has been a big improvement over the previous model, in which the school system was divided into 27 “clusters,” each with an office housing just a handful of administrators. The cluster offices, in which Ms. Lagrosa served as a leader, could support only superficial efforts to improve instruction, she said.

“We’re directing the delivery of professional development, not just in one or two shots, but by going into the schools on an ongoing basis,” said Ms. Lagrosa, referring to the current arrangement.

Mr. Romer credits such guidance, along with other changes, for the district’s success in raising student performance at the elementary level, which has outpaced statewide improvement rates in recent years.

A former Colorado governor, he notes that with about 70,000 students, each of the 11 local districts has served about as many students as the Denver school system. (Under the consolidation plan, that number will grow to about 95,000.)

“This whole issue for us is what kind of expertise, what kind of specialists do we need in the subject- matter content areas that will help a very, very large district change its practice,” the superintendent said in an interview.

Critics, however, see the local districts as administration run amok. They balked when Mr. Romer first suggested keeping all 11 of them—although he did propose trimming their budgets—at a time when schools have had to absorb cuts in money for classroom supplies and other resources.

John Perez, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, calls the local-district administrators “fat cats” and “princes.” Their efforts to monitor instruction through a process called “learning walks,” he contends, are intrusive and counterproductive.

“The superintendent thinks he cannot run the district without an army of bureaucrats,” said Mr. Perez. “The mini-districts don’t do anything to improve instruction at the classroom level. If anything, they hinder it.”

A ‘Precarious Place’

With the school board under the gun to reduce more spending, the union mobilized its members in an all-out campaign against the local districts. In multiple demonstrations, the message was: Cut the bureaucracy first, not the classroom. The union is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

It was after some board members proposed having as few as four local districts—which would have more than doubled the number of students in each one—that Mr. Romer came up with his compromise plan for eight regions. Union leaders said last week they could live with the deal.

Despite the cuts, the superintendent said the new structure includes some improvements. While reducing the overall size of the staff in each district office, it boosts the number of specialists to support instruction in science and social studies. It also gives each office a parent ombudsman, a new position proposed by board members.

But as the dust settled last week, board member Marlene Canter said she fears that the episode bodes ill for the future. The flare-up was the biggest since a slate of union-supported board members formed a new majority on the school board, bringing with it a different mind-set than that of the board that hired Mr. Romer four year ago.

“We’re at a very precarious place right now in terms of leadership,” said Ms. Canter, who voted against the consolidation.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as L.A. Board Votes to Trim Subdistrict Offices

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