Wednesday, September 23, 2009

CRISIS: LAUSD CUTS DOWN ON COMMITTEES. Move reduces staff time, materials; critics disagree.

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News

23 September 2009 -- LAUSD to streamline committees, forums

A divided Los Angeles Unified school board voted Tuesday to eliminate all special committees and limit public comment, but critics said the cost-cutting move comes at the expense of free and open debate at a time of huge change in the district.

The 5-2 decision will save money by reducing materials and staff time associated with committees that handle issues ranging from curriculum and maintenance to school safety and charter schools.

"We are in a crisis," said School Board President Monica Garcia, who proposed the plan. "And with this budget we are not only challenged to do less ... we must do things differently."

The plan limits the number of speakers at a board meeting to seven on an item the board is voting on.

Also under the new plan, up to 15 people can address the board during public discussion of general issues.

Board members Marguerite LaMotte and Steve Zimmer voted against the plan. LaMotte questioned whether the plan would give the board enough time to adequately discuss all the issues given the fact that board meetings now run up to seven hours.

"Why don't we delay this until we have a plan?" LaMotte asked the board.

"As intelligent people how are we going to take something away without having something to put in its place?"

Garcia said her plan was partially drawn to address a 30 percent decline in the budget for the office of LAUSD Board Secretariat.

The staff of LAUSD's board secretariat coordinates all district meetings and is responsible for producing all meeting related material.

"We are now prepared to handle 24 hours worth of meetings a month," said board executive officer Jefferson Crain, who heads the Board Secretariat Office. "How that is allocated is up to the board."

Still critics said the efficiency is coming at too high a price.

"You are eliminating public debate and discussion at a critical time," said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

She cited a recent district decision to allow underperforming schools and new campuses to be run by independent operators, such as charter schools, the teachers union and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's schools partnership.

"This is efficiency at the expense of transparency," added Bill Ring, a long-time parent advocate.

The board will replace the special committee meetings - that include participation from board members, district staff, parents and community experts - with weekly board meetings, with the final meeting of the month used to discuss districtwide issues.

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines also said he will increase the number of meetings with parents and teachers at local district offices.

Over the years, the use of district committees has fluctuated and the amount of responsibilities given to the groups has also changed.

For example in the last few years, as the district has handled its $20 billion construction program, the district's facilities committee was heavily involved with locating sites for new schools, and addressing the needs of aging campuses.

Also, the district's charters and innovation committee was a filter for new charter applications and requests by the independent public schools to be reauthorized.

The advent of full-day kindergarten at the district was also an idea hatched by a district committee.

"These committees are an opportunity for parents, and district staff, to learn about what's happening at the district," former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky said during the meeting.

"This is not only an issue about committees though, it's about how open or closed this board wants to be."

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