by Ryan Vaillancourt – Los Angeles Downtown News
Oct 20, 2008 (online Oct 18) - DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Less than a year before the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts opens, officials are mulling a proposal that would take operational and administrative control of the $232 million school away from the Los Angeles Unified School District and hand it to an autonomous governing body.
The proposal, which was offered by the chief executive of a local charter schools organization who was solicited by the Broad Foundation, run by philanthropist Eli Broad, suggests giving the arts school charter-like independence from district rules pertaining to staffing, curriculum development, budgetary issues and most operating tasks.
Ref Rodriguez, the co-founder and co-chief executive of charter schools organization People Uplifting Communities and the author of the proposal, said he was tapped by the Broad Foundation - which has given $5 million to the school - and the California Charter Schools Assn. to consider a role for PUC in the arts school. Rodriguez ultimately decided it was not an appropriate fit for PUC, but continues to participate in discussions about the school as an individual. Eli Broad was traveling and not available for comment, a Broad Foundation spokeswoman said.
"As I started to dig around and think about the political landmines, to put it bluntly, I realized that this is not what PUC is set up for," Rodriguez said.
The most explosive landmine might very well be the hot-button word "charter." Although those working on the project have been careful not to identify the school as a potential charter institution, suggestions that certain charter characteristics could be adopted, such as the use of non-unionized teachers, has drawn criticism from A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles.
"I have no faith in the smoke and mirrors that Mr. Rodriguez is using," said Duffy, adding that the proposal sounds like a charter, but without the designation.
Rodriguez, along with officials who have welcomed his proposal, including Board of Education President Monica Garcia, insist they are not interested in pursuing state-recognized charter status. But top district officials, among them Deputy Supt. Ramon Cortines, agree that the school should have a certain degree of autonomy, with local management having the flexibility to make decisions quickly.
Rodriguez's proposal suggests handing the reins to a nonprofit body that would have the power to control five aspects of the school: staffing, devising and managing the budget, maintenance, fundraising and managing facilities to generate income for the school.
That power, Rodriguez said, would allow the school to do things like pay teachers and administrators salaries that exceed district guidelines. It would also allow the school to hire non-credentialed professionals to teach art classes, without laboring through the LAUSD approval processes, said Araceli Ruano, who chairs Discovering the Arts, a 15-member advisory board that was set up to advise the district on the school.
"The one thing that I think everyone agrees on is that we need charter-like autonomies to make it successful," said Ruano.
With its high-profile design by Coop Himmelb(l)au, state-of-the-art facilities and expected high operating budget, the school would be handcuffed if run like most LAUSD schools, Ruano said. Philanthropists, she argued, would be more willing to donate to a nonprofit entity than the district. The arts-related facilities, including a 950-seat theater, require specialized maintenance and care that the district is not prepared to handle, she said.
Keeping It In-House
The school at 450 N. Grand Ave. is scheduled to open in fall 2009. While Garcia and Cortines agree that it should function with a high degree of autonomy from the district, they want to create a model that keeps the LAUSD - and not an outside organization - in the driver's seat.
Schools in the Belmont Zone of Choice, the Downtown district that will include the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, already have the flexibility to devise specialized curriculums within each school's small learning communities, Cortines said.
The three current Belmont Zone of Choice schools - Belmont High School, the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center and the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex - are divided into 15 academies, with specializations in topics such as social justice or engineering, which are taught in addition to state requirements in math, science, history and English. The arts high school will be divided into four academies with focuses on visual art, music, dance and theater.
"The one prerequisite I have is that the arts school has to cover California state standards for high school," said Cortines. "Otherwise, I want them to be as creative and innovative as possible."
Garcia is also convinced that the district can devise an innovative and semi-autonomous governing structure without bringing in an outside organization.
"I have been involved in an effort to get autonomy to my schools with my partners so there is conversation right now about how that would work out for [the arts school]," Garcia said. "I expect that this district will have to rise to the challenge of being able to stretch and meet the needs of this opportunity."
How to meet that challenge, Garcia said, remains a "live discussion."
The district expects to select a principal for the school by the end of the month, said Local District 4 Supt. Richard Alonzo. Once that happens, Alonzo believes the school's development will accelerate.
In the meantime, some stakeholders in the school are starting to feel anxious that a plan is not yet in place.
"There's a deep sense of urgency and anxiety," Ruano said. "We just can't wait anymore."
The school has been without an onsite leader since Elizabeth Kennedy, the woman hired last year to be the executive director, resigned in September.
Kennedy, the former administrative director of the L.A. Opera, was hired last year for a position mostly geared toward fundraising. It took about two years to get the position approved, but because of bureaucratic glitches, "There was no way to get her paid," Ruano said.
Discovering the Arts ultimately paid Kennedy with part of the $5 million in grant money from the Broad Foundation before she resigned, Ruano said.