LAUSD chief pushes forward with reform plans

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Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent of Schools Ramon Cortines.

No government agency has been spared from the consequences of the economic downturn, and the Los Angeles Unified School District has been especially hard hit by declining enrollment and drops in funds from state and federal sources.

In KPCC's continuing series, "Big Man on Campus," Patt Morrison checked in today with Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

On top of the $640 million budget deficit, staff layoffs, and furloughs, the district recently decided it will limit inter-district transfers, gaining $51 million in state funds next year by keeping students at their local schools. Today, the superintendent was emphatic that his review committee would look at each request to transfer districts on a case-by-case basis.

“I’ve set up a panel to look at every permit on its merit… on its merit. And it’s not just child care. It’s not just the inconvenience of a single parent. There are educational programs that we do not offer that we should be offering. I’m not going to penalize the family or the student [by] not allowing them to go [to a school that does offer those programs],” said Cortines.

The superintendent also raised the question of parental involvement in schools. In a meeting last night he asked parents, “Where were you in fixing your own school so you didn’t have to leave and go some place else?”

The LAUSD and Cortines have insisted that the policy to cut inter-district transfers could save millions of desperately-needed dollars for the district.

“So we are going to be fair and we are going to look at merit, but people are going to have to look at what it costs us. We lose in the neighborhood of over $50 million based on permits,” he said. “I’m cutting jobs, I’m trying to find revenue and yet we have leaky dykes. And there are legitimate reasons for children and families to be in other schools, but we need to be on top of this and I intend to do it.”

Cortines gave an example of a transfer request he did not see as having merit: A parent requested that their child be transferred to another district’s school with a well-known arts program. But Cortines insisted the child’s current Los Angeles Unified school had one of the best art programs in the district. “What it said to me is maybe they just didn’t want to go to school with students that are the color that I am, and darker.”

One caller, the mother of a child enrolled in an LAUSD school, raised issue with the comment, saying, “I am a little offended by your comment related to the fact that anyone is pulling their kids out of the LAUSD district because of color,” she said. “I think your comment was directed at people that are white, but in effect, what you have done is to insult anyone that takes their child out of a school.”

Cortines replied, “Nobody in America has been involved in integration and desegregation more than I have in every school district I’ve served. But I think it is naïve if we do not think that we all have some prejudice and that some of our decisions are made on that. It is not about white, it is not about African-American or Asian or Latino. Parents want the best for their children and I understand that, but I also believe that parents have the responsibility, that instead of running to someplace else, to take over their school and make it the very best it can be.”

In the interview, the superintendent also touched on recent layoffs and furloughs saying, “There isn’t anything that I have done that I would do if I had money.”

When Patt Morrison brought up the option of bankruptcy, which the district could face if it fails to reduce the deficit in time, Cortines insisted that the current options are better than what might happen if the government is forced to take over the district.

“There is no discussion or there is no negotiation — whoever they put in as the monitor, they say ‘thou shalt do this,’” he said. “So at least in this process, there is some room for compromise, there is some room for debate, and there is some room for discussion. Where it’s been done in the state, it takes years for recovery.”

To hear the full interview with Cortines, visit the Patt Morrison page.

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