August 4, 2005
Battling Board Backs Bond
What a difference a day makes.
In 24 little hours, the L.A. school board journeyed last week from chaos to harmony; from nothing to a November ballot measure; from no new taxes to a bond measure that will ask voters to raise their property taxes for schools "one last time."
If voters go for it, these local school bonds would be the fourth in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) since 1997, and would raise $3.985 billion to pay for new and repaired schools. Part of the money is needed to make up for the feverishly rising cost of school construction; the rest would fund a program that has expanded to some $15.2 billion, perhaps the nation's largest ongoing public works project outside of Iraq.
About half of Southern California's Jewish families send their children to public schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Those largely middle-class families should be seeing positive changes in their L.A. neighborhood schools. The bulk of current and future bond dollars, however, will address areas of greatest need, namely the overcrowded and dilapidated schools in heavily minority neighborhoods, such as East Los Angeles and South Los Angeles.
The person who made the difference last week between bonds and no bonds was Superintendent Roy Romer. The former three-term governor of Colorado knows a thing or two about behind-the-scenes politicking, and he needed all his wiles, before and after the school board's July 27 meeting. That was to be the day for board members to put the bond measure on the ballot. The trustees needed to act before the end of July, officials said, to make the November ballot.
Instead, the board consensus crashed and burned.
The pivotal dispute arose over funding for charter schools. These are independently run campuses monitored but not controlled by L.A. Unified. Many parents and officials extol charter schools as the reform path of the future, but San Fernando Valley board members Julie Korenstein and Jon Lauritzen have their doubts. They didn't like that Romer had increased funds for charter schools from $25 million to $70 million. In other words, money for charter schools rose from just over one-half of 1 percent to 1.8 percent of the bond.
Romer had reasons for making the change; mainly, he wanted the good will and campaign support of charter-school parents and advocates in the run-up to November. These advocates had lobbied him hard for more bond money, arguing that LAUSD was legally required to help charter schools find classroom space.
But Korenstein and Lauritzen were determined to knock charter funding down to $50 million. District sources say $50 million was the figure that some insiders judged as the minimum that would avoid a defection of charter supporters from the November bond. The trim was made at first, but then undone by a later transfer.
Through all the maneuvering, the 76-year-old Romer, on crutches from recent surgery on his right ankle, wore a weary, expressionless mask, but he had to be feeling slightly apoplectic. His carefully allocated pots of money -- divided up just so -- were being futzed with through a series of four-vote majorities. But he needed five votes to get the thing on the ballot, and his fifth vote was slipping away.
Korenstein already had alerted everyone that she needed to leave at 6 p.m., but when charter schools got their money back, she shaved off a few extra minutes and stormed out of the room, refusing to vote.
Board member Jose Huizar dashed out in her wake. Huizar is running for the East L.A. City Council seat vacated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and in an interview, Huizar indicated that he didn't want to be the deciding vote. Lauritzen stayed in the room, but told The Journal afterwards that he was leaning toward a "no" vote. And Romer had never been counting on a "yes" from board member Marguerite LaMotte. In an interview, she talked of being "on the fence" at best.
In a matter of minutes, a possible 7-0 vote had collapsed to a likely 3-4.
Romer asked for the board meeting to be suspended till the next afternoon. He then went to work behind the scenes, while also making time to steel himself by having dinner and a glass of Pinot Grigiot with friends. He knew what he had to do: knock down the charter-school funding to bring Korenstein and Lauritzen back on board.
That's exactly what happened. And even Huizar, the cautious council candidate, jumped on the bandwagon to make it 6-0. (The seventh board member, Marguerite LaMotte, didn't attend the Wednesday meeting.)
If approved by voters, the bond would mostly pay for renovating existing schools and building new ones -- costs for that have shot up to about $85,000 per seat. The price in property taxes will average about $27 for every $100,000 of assessed property value, on top of about $85 per $100,000 for the previous school bonds.
This bond demonstrates how ambitious the LAUSD construction program has become. Before this effort, the school district last opened a high school in 1971. This program envisions about 12 new high schools among 160 new campuses. And, at the end of this spending, said Romer and his staff, no more students would attend school on a year-round schedule, which shortens the school year by 17 days. And middle schools would have no more than 2,000 students.
Such goals were barely contemplated when voters passed the 1997 bond, which mostly fixed as many district schools as the money could get to. But that was before Romer arrived, and got going with his high cost, high benefit vision.
In getting this bond on the ballot, all three Jewish board members played central roles. For better or worse, Korenstein, who represents much of the San Fernando Valley, nearly torpedoed the entire bond over a relatively modest increase in charter-school funds.
David Tokofsky, whose district runs from Silver Lake to southeast L.A. County, successfully moved bond money around, but failed to get as much funding as he wanted to help construct future charter schools. Tokofsky works part time for a charter-school operator and speaks like a true believer. Charters aside, Tokofsky never wavered in supporting the new bond. He wanted to raise taxes even more, but failed to persuade a board majority to put an additional annual levy -- $150 per parcel -- on the ballot.
And then there was Westside board member Marlene Canter, recently installed as board of education president. She is generally Romer's tightest ally. In her role as meeting chair, Canter presided, helplessly, as Romer's five-vote bloc disintegrated. Then, the next day, she efficiently executed Romer's plan to recapture the lost votes. Part of this strategy was siding with Korenstein to trim charter-school funding.
If Jewish voters are like other middle-class parents, there's a solid chance they would want more help, not less, for charter schools. Romer is betting they'll support the bond anyway, and the completion of his massive building program depends on it.