Wednesday, June 10, 2009

L.A. SCHOOLS CHIEF PROPOSES GUTTING WATCHDOG’S OFFICE | Deficit: Inspector general would be mostly sidelined during financial crisis.

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA NEWSPAPER GROUP/Daily NeWs

6/11/2009 - Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines has proposed gutting the district's watchdog Inspector General's Office with a budget cut of 50 to 75 percent, described as potentially "catastrophic" to the department's operations.

The Office of Inspector General has traditionally monitored some of the district's most controversial and expensive projects, such as its multibillion-dollar school construction program and has pointed out waste, fraud and questionable uses of district funds.

"I am considering a cut," Cortines said. "The budget continues to get worse, and I think everything needs to be looked at. ... It's not something I want to do."

Cortines said he has worked closely with the OIG.

"I read every report," he said, but added that some audits are "not that beneficial."

He said he plans to ask the office to refrain from performing any audits, except those that look into potential criminal activity, until the district's budget situation improves.

The school board closed a $596 million deficit in April by approving budget cuts that included massive layoffs, but the district still faces another $200 million to $300 million in cuts next fiscal year.

Inspector General Jerry D. Thornton was out of town and could not be reached for comment, but in a written memo he said a 50 percent cut would be "horrific" while a 75 percent cut "would be catastrophic and would not permit the OIG to function as a viable office."

"Such a cut will benefit those that mismanage or steal the District's assets," he added in the memo, posted on a local blogger's Web site.

Thornton said his office has saved the district millions of dollars over the years - including just $37 million in the first six months of this fiscal year.

The OIG's budget for 2009-10 is $6.7 million. Instead of the steeper cuts, Thornton proposed a series of moves to save $1.5 million that include some job cuts as well as early retirements.

Board members will consider the superintendent's request at a future meeting, but some questioned Tuesday whether he is seeking too steep a reduction.

"I think a cut of 25 percent is what we need to look at," said board member Marguerite LaMotte. "If we're going to be transparent, we need his office's help."

The head of the teachers union also questioned the proposal.

"I understand that everything has to be looked at," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "We need to look at the depth of cuts for an office like the Inspector General. The office is very important in keeping fraud and other wrongdoing in check."

Also Tuesday, the LAUSD board approved plans to draft legislation that could make it easier for school districts to fire teachers and administrators for immoral, unprofessional or criminal conduct.

The board voted 4-3 to ask a seven-member district task force to write the legislation, with a goal of submitting it to state lawmakers by next year.

A previous proposal failed to win support at a board meeting earlier this year, but it was then modified to include administrators as well as teachers, and so it would not include performance as a criteria for firing teachers.

Currently, California school districts cannot directly fire teachers without a lengthy administrative process. Teachers have the right to take their case to administrative appeals that can drag on for years, while in most cases they continue to receive their salaries.

The legislation to be drafted by the task force of parents, teachers, administrators and district staff would streamline that process and return more authority to school districts.

"We have a board today that has consistently said kids come first," said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who supported the proposal. "This is about saying kids come first."

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