September 15, 2005
School Bond Measure Gets Failing Grade
I have a picture on the wall of my office. It was taken at about 4 a.m. in 1998. I'm in the picture with a group of Democratic and Republican legislators. We look tired; we've been up late for a number of nights. But there's also a glint of celebration.
That was a happy and proud moment. We had just negotiated Proposition 1A, which put $9.2 billion of school bonds on the ballot. This bipartisan breakthrough opened the way for three successful state school bonds that raised $34 billion for school construction.
I've also supported local school bonds, and the state and local money that voters entrusted to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is being used to build schools all over the city.
I don't take this progress lightly or for granted. But building for seats is not the same as building for reform. To date, L.A. Unified has done the former but only paid lip service to the latter. And I find myself moving to an uncomfortable and unfamiliar position on the question of the school district's bid to pass $3.985 billion in school bonds this November.
In truth, the public was promised more and has a right to expect more: that pre-K and after-school programs, as well as adult education, libraries, health-care access and recreation, would be programmed by design into each new school.
Our expectation was that the billions in bond proceeds would create safe learning centers within revitalized and healthy neighborhoods.
Instead, as it now stands, this costly investment is doomed to return little. We are losing more than half our students as dropouts, and these new schools are not poised to alter that outcome or even to dramatically improve the fate of the undereducated grads who stick it out. Our new schools must be more than just rain-free warehouses.
The school district is blowing it -- squandering a historic opportunity and, in the process, perpetrating an ethical crime on the thousands of students whose future it is failing.
The competent and relentless former Navy men and real estate pros who now erect schools in Los Angeles just drive like a freight train toward the goal of building seats -- without regard to the design and programming of these schools, without regard to what we know about how children learn, without regard to the relationship between educational achievement and the health and vitality of the neighborhoods in which these students live.
Look at the schools about to open. Too many of them are huge -- when we know that children learn more successfully in small schools. We're told the district will do better on the next round, but we've heard empty promises from the school district before.
The district also earns a failing grade on joint planning. Now is the time, with schools rising all over the city, for the school district to work with the city, health agencies, nonprofits, parks departments, housing developers and community groups to build schools that are planned as the center of communities. LAUSD sees collaborative planning with community input as too time consuming and expensive.
Yes, collaboration is harder than building schools as though they're islands walled off from a hostile sea. But thoughtful, joint planning pays off for generations to come.
One good example is in San Diego, where a collaborative planning process -- which involved a school, along with other services and development -- transformed blighted City Heights.
There are one or two exceptions to the L.A. malaise, including a new school in Westlake, just west of downtown, that involves collaboration with a Boys & Girls Club, the city and an affordable-housing developer.
But such joint planning stands out for being so rare. And outside entities that have tried to collaborate with the district's bureaucracy can tell horror stories of how difficult it's been. On the district side, there's no real energy, interest or aptitude applied to the necessary re-imagining of schools.
I don't speak for my friend, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, although I do know he shares my passion for improving the schools of Los Angeles. But as for me, I'm just tired of this same old, same old.
I'm tired of just going back to the voters and asking them to pass more money to just build more classroom seats. This bond measure represents the same old cookie-cutter: Grab the cash, pull the wool over the voters' eyes and not learn from your experiences.
We know what we need to do. We need to make schools smaller and anchor them in neighborhoods, so that there will be more grandmothers than cops on our campuses. Chicago, New York and Providence, R.I, have shown the way.
Let's make this bond -- L.A.'s fourth since 1997 -- reflect truly important educational and community values. In this bond, we must limit the enrollment at a school, absent compelling reasons. And if the school site is larger than 500, it must be divided into separate facilities with separate principals. And there must be guidelines regarding joint use, possibly including a joint-powers authority set up between the city of Los Angeles and LAUSD.
We can incorporate these principles and guidelines into the bond.
District officials can easily take action at a school board meeting before the November special election. They can mandate that bond proceeds be spent for small schools that are planned and constructed as the centers of their neighborhoods. Until such changes are made, I must oppose this school bond measure -- with the greatest reluctance and a heavy heart.
I am not, however, checking out of the issue. If this school bond passes, I will continue to pressure school board members to spend wisely. But I'd rather they alter course and get it right now, so I can change my mind and support the bond.
Until then, a resounding "no" is the best way to send the school district a message that may benefit children down the road.
Attorney and former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg ran for mayor of Los Angeles this year and has served as an adviser to both Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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