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Funding the Wrong Programs

by  David A. Lehrer

September 17, 2010 | 3:49 pm

Los Angeles is a wonderful city. As a native I have a love for the climate, the landscape, the diversity of peoples—-all of which make for a unique and dynamic and interesting place to live and raise a family.

What doesn’t seem so dynamic is the profound dysfunction that has marked our political environment over the past few years. This blog has written about the pension issues that plague LA and so many other jurisdictions, the mishandling of the Autry National Center, and several other matters that have displayed the vacuum in leadership that seems to be especially marked these days.

But of all those issues, none strikes as resonant a chord with me as a story that appears in this week’s LA Weekly about the dismantling of the Los Angeles Public Library. Having served on the Library’s Board of Commissioners and as its president over a decade ago, it is especially painful to watch as budget cuts destroy what is probably the best run institution in local government.

Clearly, the city, as virtually every other level of government, faces a financial crisis; cuts in budgets are inevitable and hard to criticize. Libraries in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Detroit faced budget cuts too—-but as the Weekly points out, “political leaders who control the purse strings for the biggest cities fought and saved their libraries from severe harm.” Not so in LA. The Weekly argues that “Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa executed an unprecedented, and punishing, raid on the libraries.” The LA City Council unlike New York’s put up no fight in the face of the mayor’s budget cutting knife.

Los Angeles has the ignominious distinction of joining Detroit as

the only big city to close down its entire library system two days a week

. And, according to the Weekly, we are the only major city to close its central library two days a week.

One might make an argument that tough times call for tough actions, and libraries shouldn’t be exempt from the pain that everyone else is undergoing. But….when the cuts make no sense and are counter-productive in the face of other city expenditures, it makes one wonder what’s going on.

Where the Weekly’s analysis piercingly strikes home is comparing the amounts cut from the library (restoring all 64 branch libraries on Mondays and the nine regional branches and Central on Sundays and Mondays would cost $10 million) against the amounts spent on questionable “gang-reduction” programs that receive millions.

As City Controller Wendy Greuel pointed out, no one knows if the anti-gang program (Gang Reduction and Youth Development) works and yet it received $18.5 million from the City Council. An analysis cited by the Weekly concluded that the “the mayor and City Council’s confidence in the GRYD’s central programs isn’t grounded in quantifiable facts.”

I’m reminded of a television program  my partner, Joe Hicks, and I hosted for several years on KCET. In one program we had an anti-gang maven and a Los Angeles Times’ reporter, David Zahniser, who had reported on anti-gang programs. Zahniser had documented the bias in favor of these programs and the hope that funders often harbor that they will deliver redemption if only enough money were spent on them. In one instance he recounted an anti-gang program that in its annual report to the City Council

….filled out all the forms and, when they finished the assessment, they concluded that that program had diverted exactly two people from gangs.
The reaction that the Council had to that assessment was, “Oh, my gosh, this program has not been getting the resources they need to do the paperwork right.” What happened was that that program got more money, not less. They didn’t say zero out the money for the program with the bad numbers. They actually said, you know, they’re having trouble with the administrative side, and they actually went the other direction.

The data from GRYD’s 2009 report the Weekly cites is the heart of the article. Apparently, last year the program enrolled 2,702 at risk 10-15 year olds and 825 older kids. According to the Weekly, that comes to $5,245 for each at risk kid.

The Los Angeles public libraries serve approximately 15,000 young people daily

; many of whom come in after school to a safe and positive environment because their parents aren’t home or their neighborhood isn’t safe and they have homework to do.

You can do the math, but that comes out to about 65 cents per kid contrasted with the GRYD’s $5,200+ per youth.

Putting aside romantic notions of what a library should be and the disturbing notion that the repository of our civilization’s ideas is being short-changed, in a plain, pragmatic dollars and cents reckoning closing down libraries and telling 15,000 kids that they better find someplace else to go, makes no sense.  Take two thirds of the GRYD kids and send them to the library, they may learn something and we’d save a lot of kids, money and libraries. 

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