May 14, 2008 - The Los Angeles Unified School District, possibly the only institution with a bigger bureaucracy than City Hall, has always had its problems.
This year has just been a bit worse than most.
The teacher payroll crisis has only recently been resolved, the rampant overbuilding coupled with student flight is still in full swing, and now sex scandals between school administrators – and their buddies in the district who help cover them up – have been hitting the papers one after another.
In the midst of this, freshman school board member and prosecuting attorney Tamar Galatzan has been wading through the muck, trying to get the board to focus on the big picture: the education of students.
CityBeat: Has your work in law affected the way you approach your job on the school board?
Tamar Galatzan: My job at the City Attorney’s office is a little bit off the beat. I’m a neighborhood prosecutor and I work out of the police station here in Van Nuys. I’ve gotten to work on some communications breakdowns between school police and LAPD.
Sounds like your two positions manage to inform each other back and forth.
Unfortunately, since I’ve been on the board we’ve had to deal with several situations where … like this whole mess with the assistant principal, news of sexual misconduct with a student and a few other types of criminal activity, so with my background as a criminal prosecutor I’ve been able to explain some things or explain how things work.
How has that been going?
First of all, it’s horrifying and it never should occur. That being said, the district had a policy in place of what to do if there are any sort of allegations of sexual misconduct between one of the adults on campus and a student. What we’ve discovered is that most of the time, the policy worked very effectively: The person was taken out of the classroom, there was an investigation done, the appropriate action was taken. The situation with this assistant principal that has made the news is one where the policy was not followed, really, with horrible results.
One of the things I realized is that up until now, the L.A. Unified did not get a copy of the police report that the sheriff’s department or an outside agency took even if it involved a student or a teacher at our school. The district was not working with the best information.
When this whole situation came to light, I introduced a resolution to make several changes to the district’s policy and that was one of them – to develop a memorandum of understanding between the LAPD and sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies so we can get copies of the reports. I also made other changes to the policy, so that now whenever there’s an allegation like this, before the district chooses to return any of these people into a setting with students, the superintendent has to sign off on that.
You mentioned that the decision to return a person to the classroom is going to go to the superintendent. In reality, is it going to go to Superintendent David Brewer or to his assistant, Ramon Cortines?
It says “superintendent.”
Apparently Cortines is taking care of the day-to-day stuff and Brewer … well, I don’t know what he’s doing, focusing on “higher things.”
I don’t think there are many things higher than a decision to put someone accused of sexual abuse of a student back into a classroom. That’s a pretty important undertaking that I think should be left to the superintendent.
So, for the layman, how does the board work?
The board doesn’t exist the way I think other legislative bodies do, in that everyone’s hanging out in the Beaudry headquarters doing business in the hallways.
It seems like there are a lot of things in L.A. Unified that don’t work quite like they do in other systems. Did that surprise you when you first joined the board?
That’s an understatement. The governance structure of L.A. Unified is dysfunctional and I think a symptom of that is the runaway bureaucracy that’s in charge of everything.
Is it harder to make change happen in that environment?
It makes it harder. Basically, the board relies on the district staff for pretty much everything, but none of those people report to us. I’ve also found that some people flat-out lie to you because they’re worried about their job or their budget. Unless the superintendent chooses to fire them, there’s nothing really the board can do.
It’s sometimes a bizarre situation. I’ll ask someone a question about numbers X, Y, and Z and they’ll come back and say that those numbers don’t exist, even if I know they do. The thing is that they know that if I get those numbers, then I would be arguing to eliminate their department, so why give them to me? It’s a “fox guarding the chicken coop” situation, and that’s how the district is structured. The board needs to hold the superintendent responsible for his staff. It’s an interesting structure.
You sound pretty frustrated with this “interesting structure.”
Oh, I’m very frustrated with the board. One of the things when I first started was that at the board meetings we’d get contracts to sign-off on. The board has to approve any contract over $250,000. So we got a bunch of contracts to approve that had already been executed the year before. So I was like, wait a second, “Aren’t we supposed to approve these?” and they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “This one is already completed!” They said, “Oh, don’t worry, just vote for it, it’s a good thing.” Eventually I got enough of my colleagues to agree that if we’re going to take our responsibilities seriously, we’re going to approve contracts before they’re signed!
In your bio it mentions that you have two children.
I have a preschooler who is not yet in L.A. Unified and I have a kindergartner who is in L.A. Unified in our neighborhood school.
Did that give you some incentive to run for office?
Of course! My boys are the reason that I ran. But it’s been neat, because I am the only person with a kid in L.A. Unified on the board. That’s been really interesting. Sometimes it’s come up in bizarre little ways. Early on, one day, Superintendent Brewer said, “Don’t worry, a letter has been sent out to all the parents.” And I said, “I didn’t receive a letter, I’m a parent!” It turned out that it was never sent, but nobody ever knew.
Would you say that accountability is one of the bigger deficiencies in L.A. Unified?
It’s a huge one. L.A. Unified really seems to have a “kill the messenger” culture. Sometimes people don’t want to be the person who says that something’s not working.
If you had a magic wand, and you could fix one area in particular, what would be the most strategic area?
The district has to find a way to give schools more control over their own budget, their spending decisions, and really give schools, especially those that are working well, some more freedoms. All decisions shouldn’t be made by bureaucrats downtown.
Do you think the current administration, with the amount of entrenched people like Cortines, are the right people to lead the district out of its old mindset?
That’s the million-dollar question. Hopefully. Superintendent Brewer has assembled a team to address a lot of these issues. Whether he can make it happen or not, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It has to do with things beyond our control.
smf's 2¢: Boardmember Galatzan's first response is both troubling and informative. The public expects public officials to bring the benefit of their experience with them to their elected positions, however Ms. Galatzan's real life experience as a neighborhood prosecutor is current and on-going - not in the past tense. She is a currently serving full-time deputy city attorney; her part-time job is as a school board member. As an attorney and a city employee what on the face of it looks like one job informing the other presents the possible appearance of a conflict of interest. This possible appearance is not an accusation, it is only a flag raised in warning. If she is working on breakdowns between LAPD (with whom the City Attorney has a close working relationship) and LA School Police (with who she has oversight) that may cross a line.
The same goes to a lesser extent in her comments re: the Rooney Matter ("this whole mess with the assistant principal, news of sexual misconduct with a student and a few other types of criminal activity"). The initial decision to not prosecute Rooney belonged ultimately to the LA County District Attorney (Galatzan works for the City Attorney) but the investigation as reported in the press was handled by LAPD. As a school board member Galatzan has inside knowledge of legal matters involving LAUSD - including criminal and civil matters in this case.
...And to CityBeat writer Archibald: the County of Los Angeles has a bigger bureaucracy than both LAUSD and City Hall! And I am waiting for the article about how the 'the rampant overbuilding' has led to rampant undercrowding!