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Anger, Frustration Evident as LAUSD Officials Meet Community

Michael Janofsky | October 17, 2013

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Board member Marguerite LaMotte: 'We're as angry as you are.'

Board member Marguerite LaMotte: ‘We’re as angry as you are.’

One parent wanted more counselors. Another wanted more security personnel. A student came forward with a friend and said, “You’re spending all that money on iPads. We’d prefer you spend it on nurses and librarians and can you please fix the bathrooms.”

This was Tuesday night, in the auditorium of Burroughs Middle School in Hancock Park. Parents, students and teachers took their concerns to a microphone, suggesting ways to slice up a $7 billion budget that includes $230 million in new revenue from Prop 30 taxes. District officials and three LA Unified Board members were there to listen.

It was democracy in action, ordinary citizens speaking to power, as part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula plan for getting districts more money. But it was sad, too, as everybody seemed to know there is only so much a district can do and so many demands for so many needs.

“A lot of anger, a lot of frustration, the reality of six years of non-stop keeping schools open and everything running with fewer and fewer resources,” Megan Reilly, the district’s chief financial officer, said in an interview yesterday.

Reilly had presided over the 90-minute gathering, the fifth of six such community meetings held this month, the last at Dymally High School in south Los Angeles last night. The district also held a session for union officials. The overall purpose was to gather feedback for when the board gets around to drawing up a spending plan for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Reilly said she and colleagues who have attended the meetings have heard different concerns at different sites, but all laced with the common denominator of pent up frustrations over years of budget cutbacks.

“The feedback has been so raw, but so heartfelt,” she said. “It’s very impactful stuff.”

The pleas also come at a time the district is fending off slings and arrows from critics of the iPad rollout, an imperfect exercise so far that could cost the district as much as $1 billion if it continues through completion. Just this week, the rollout schedule was stretched out a year, to the end of 2015, in deference to the problems so far.

Never mind that iPad money is separate from Local Control money.

Still, a billion dollars for tablets that lots of people don’t necessarily want has been a bitter pill to swallow for many, with remedies still needed for overcrowded classrooms, the union cry for more teachers and insufficient supplies of toilet paper.

With needs different place to place, a consensus seems to be building around the district for letting schools make their own spending decisions, rather than LA Unified Central. In the very unscientific poll Reilly conducted Tuesday night, 72 percent of the 86 people voting “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the proposition that schools should get more autonomy over how to invest their money. That’s something else the board has to decide.

The three board members in the audience Tuesday night — Monica Ratliff, Steve Zimmer and Marguerite LaMotte – each took a turn at the end, addressing those who stayed. We hear you, they all said, acknowledging the grim landscape and promising that things, even if slowly, will start improving.

“We’re as angry as you are,” LaMotte said in a rousing closing argument, her fist pumping the air.

It’s true, in a way, that things can only get better. One of the slides Reilly put up early in the presentation showed the decline of per-student spending by state since 2008, when the recession hit.

California ranked 49th, trailing only Alabama.

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