Saturday, November 10, 2007

WAS CARSON SCHOOL VOTE A LOST CHANCE?: A look back at a decision in 2001 against defecting from LAUSD shows that little, and much, has changed.

by Paul Clinton, Staff Writer - Daily Breeze

November 6, 2007 - Six years ago today Carson voters decided not to take a leap of faith.

As unhappy as many were with the Los Angeles Unified School District, residents nevertheless rejected a bid to carve out their own independent school system.

It was an overwhelming victory for the district's teachers union, which spent almost $500,000 to ensure Carson would not be the first city since Torrance in 1948 to defect from the massive LAUSD.

Six years later, much has changed. And little has changed.

CARSON FOR THE GEOGRAPHICALLY CHALLENGED: Carson is located 13 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, east of the narrow corridor that connects LA to San Pedro - bounded roughly by the 110 to the west, 710 to the east, 91 on the north and the 405 on the south • Carson is home to 14 LAUSD elementary schhools, 2 LAUSD middle schools, Carson High School and an LAUSD continuation school plus a Long Beach Unified middle school and a Compton USD Elementary School - and the California Academy of Math & Science on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills - technically a LBUSD school. (CAMS the second highest rated HS in the state - after Whitney in Cerritos - both schools are highly selective!) Kids in south Carson go to Banning HS in Wilmington • Carson is home to the Goodyear blimp, Home Depot Center (Carson has two major league soccer teams, the Galaxy and Chivas, USA - and LA has none!) and California State University, Dominguez Hills • As of the 2000 census, Carson had a total population of 89,730; there were 24,648 households out of which 39.2% had preschool or school age kids living with them. The racial makeup of the city was 25.69% White, 25.41% Black or African American, 0.56% Native American, 22.27% Asian (mainly Filipino) , 2.99% Pacific Islander, 17.98% from other races, and 5.09% from two or more races. 34.92% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. Non-Hispanic whites comprise 12.00% of the population • Carson has the distinction of being the only incorporated city in the United States where the African American population has a higher median income than the white population.

- smf/data from Wikipedia

A reform-minded Los Angeles mayor has put his imprint on the school board and is about to take over some low-performing district schools, though none is in Carson.

A new superintendent has vowed to partner with the mayor to stem the district's high dropout rate, though there is evidence that more Carson kids than ever are not staying in high school.

And the district has embarked on a massive school building program, though no new schools or classroom additions have been built in Carson yet. A new high school is on the boards for 2011. [South Region HS#4 @ Northeast Corner of Carson St. and Santa Fe Ave. in Long Beach]

Perhaps most frustrating, especially to supporters of Measure D in November 2001, the Carson community still has little direct say in school management, curriculum or funding.

Those are among the reasons two groups next fall plan to open charter high schools, which give them more autonomy than traditional schools.

"I certainly think the citizens of Carson missed an opportunity to create their school district and determine the quality of their education," said Carolyn Harris, the measure's chief proponent. "Carson missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Some parents agree.

Gayle Konig, a parent who supported Measure D, said she felt so strongly about keeping her children out of Carson schools that she only applied for jobs in Torrance, where she could enroll them under special permits.

"We had kids going to Torrance schools because the schools are so bad (in Carson)," Konig said. "That seems to be the biggest problem with LAUSD, they don't want to think about the kids first."

Both of her boys graduated from Torrance High School.

Konig said "the power the union" thwarted Measure D just as it has thwarted other attempts at reform.

Indeed, United Teachers Los Angeles outspent initiative backers 25 to 1 to defeat Measure D, which would have pulled 21,000 students into the new district.

In mobilizing its members, along with police and other local unions, UTLA claimed a new district in Carson would imperil salaries and benefits because it would not be bound by the union contract with Los Angeles Unified once it expired.

UTLA President A.J. Duffy, then a Westside area union chair and Palms Middle School teacher, acknowledges he played an active role in defeating the measure with former UTLA President Day Higuchi.

"There were a couple of reasons why we opposed the breakup, which really had nothing to do with the efficiency or lack of efficiency of the schools," Duffy said. "For Carson, the breakaway to us meant more bureaucracy, not less bureaucracy."

Mike Mitoma, the former Carson mayor who launched the breakaway move with Harris, bristles at that notion. The plan, he said, was to set up a small district office with "no fancy buildings."

Mitoma said little has changed since 2001.

Test scores have risen slowly in sixth through 12th grades, while elementary schools improved more steadily.

In 2001, only one of 12 elementary schools scored above 700 on the state's 200-to-1,000 performance index. Today, only one school is below that mark at 699.

However, none of the three middle schools or Carson High met that bar.

In addition, Mitoma said, the dropout rate is worsening.

For the Class of 2001, 63 percent of the 853 students who started their freshman year at Carson High made it to 12th grade. In 2006, the percentage was only 47 percent.

Overcrowding also has persisted at Carson High, from an average of 28.2 students per class in 2000-01 to 31.5 students in 2005-06.

Former school board member Mike Lansing said that's all about to change.

The LAUSD is using millions of dollars in bond revenue to pay for upgrades to Carson schools, from new technology already in the classrooms to the new high school planned for Carson students on Long Beach land.

None of that would have been possible had Carson seceded, he said.

"This new high school wouldn't have been built and they wouldn't have gotten the modernization projects that are planned for the next six, seven years," Lansing said.

Breakaway supporters, however, say a Carson Unified School District would have received state per-pupil funds, property tax revenue and local fees charged to developers to offset the crowding brought by families in new housing developments.

With a wave of development planned for Carson in 2001, Mitoma anticipated millions of dollars in developer fees that instead were sent to district headquarters.

Then, as now, local communities say not enough of the LAUSD resources filter down to school sites. Superintendent David Brewer has said less than 60 cents of every state dollar reaches school sites.

"We were going to provide the principals with a budget to run their schools," Mitoma said. "Exactly what everybody's talking about now is what we would have implemented. The money to the classroom would have been substantially higher."

With powerful forces lined up against it, however, Measure D was crushed at the polls. Nearly three of every four voters opposed it.

Observers say Carson's failure is a lesson for other communities that want more local control over funding, hiring decisions and curriculum at their public schools.

"I look at that failure as bringing to light all the lessons one has to take into account if someone wants to break up the 700-square-mile LAUSD," said David Abel, chairman of New Schools Better Neighborhoods, an independent master planner. "Those lessons suggest that the barriers to do that are many."

Indeed, creating a separate Carson school district would be nearly impossible today.

Following the 2001 vote, state law was changed on school breakaway bids. In 2001, only residents within the proposed Carson school district decided the fate of the measure.

Today, a school secession would be decided by voters in the entire Los Angeles Unified School District.

smf's 2¢: The history of LA schoolchildren is littered with squandered and missed opportunities; this wasn't one of them. One can torture the statistics to say UTLA paid $68 for every no vote - or even $16 for every registered voter who didn't show - but the cold hard reality remains the results of the election: 2,644 / 26.42% Yes votes. 7,365 / 73.58% No votes. 22% Election turnout.

Cue the Fleetwood Mac music: " …till the landslide brought me down."

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