County Supervisors question LACOE decision to close schools

County supervisors today expressed frustration with a decision by the Los Angeles County Office of Education to close 20 alternative schools and pushed for solutions that might allow some classrooms to reopen in September.

"These schools (serve) a very important function,'' said Supervisor Don Knabe, but acknowledged that the board didn't have the power to reverse the LACOE's action.

The agency closed the schools June 30. About 700 total students -- including juveniles on probation, pregnant teens and others not well served by mainstream options -- were enrolled at the 20 sites. The facilities are part of a system of 53 community day and independent schools, most of which operate

Supervisor Darline Robles said that the agency had to make "horrible choices'' in the face of a budget deficit of about $17 million.

"This is basically a budget issue,'' said Robles. "... none of us want to reduce or eliminate programs that are successful.'' Closing the schools was part of an effort to cut costs and get state approval for the larger department's budget, she said, because state funding for the special programs did not fully cover their costs.

But Robles also seemed to defend the decision, saying that schools that were closed were not meeting attendance goals.

The ambiguity prompted Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to ask pointedly, "Are (the programs) worth saving?'' adding "are these the kinds of efforts that ought to be supported by your offices?''

If so, Ridley-Thomas said, the LACOE needed to be more proactive in seeking alternatives for the 700 displaced students.

Two weeks ago, Knabe had sought a 30-day moratorium on school closings to give the LACOE time to craft other solutions.

At that time, Robles said that if teachers were hired for another 30 days, regulations governing the agency might require them to be paid for the entire year -- at a cost of more than $1 million.

County counsel today affirmed that opinion.

"There is a very rigid scheme in the education code,'' said County Counsel Andrea Ordin. The regulations intentionally tie LACOE's hands in contracting with any teachers on a temporary basis, she said.

As a result, the closings seemed inevitable, but Robles had agreed to go back to her board to consider reopening the sites in the short term. The supervisor said at that time that she was negotiating with officials from the affected districts and might be able to get them to sign off on additional
costs to support the 20 sites.

"That's not off the table,'' Robles said today. She said the agency would be "more than willing'' to reopen the schools in September so long as school district contributions and state funding for the 20 schools allowed the LACOE to operate them without losing money.

"What I (don't) understand is how we got here,'' said Supervisor Don Knabe. "You arbitrarily made this decision in a very short period of time to close these facilities. Your board didn't vote on it.'' When Robles returned to the board to consider the matter, members were apparently unwilling to step in and take action after the fact.

If the LACOE is unable to craft some alternative, local school districts would be obliged to absorb the community day students in September.

But the president of the teacher's union said that the LACOE had acted too abruptly, not thinking through the plan to shift students back to the districts.

"Many students do not know where to go and are not welcome at their schools of residence,'' said Mark Lewis. "... (Students) who were well on their way to achieving high school education now have nowhere to finish and will most likely not get to the end. We are about to create a boulevard of
broken dreams for many students.''

Robles pledged that she would personally review the list of displaced to ensure that they were re-enrolled in mainstream schools in the fall. If they were not, Robles said she would reach out to superintendents directly to find out why.

A now-unemployed teacher who Robles called "one of the most wonderful teachers we have in our county,'' also spoke out, saying the LACOE valued the bureaucracy of budgeting over the needs of students.

"I'm not just going to stand and be silent while these children are not looked upon as important enough that a budget cannot be adjusted, or a budget cannot wait,'' said Rudy Spivery, a teacher laid off from Downey Community Day School as a result of budget cuts. "These kids are the fabric of our future.''

The board requested a review of the LACOE's decision and alternatives to accommodate students of the 20 closed schools, including the possibility of holding classes at Probation Department offices.

"We need to make sure that there's a thorough analysis of any opportunity to keep these facilities open (come September),'' said Knabe. "I'm just not comfortable with how this decision was made.''

KPCC wire services contributed to this report.