Easy funding source for schools gets complicated
Mike Szymanski | March 22, 2016
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Neighborhood councils in Los Angeles have served as easy and reliable sources of funds for public schools. The councils have $37,000 a year to dole out to the community, and many have set aside a portion of their budgets specifically for schools.
But recently some of the councils have learned of a restriction that would tie their hands in giving to schools.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which runs the 97 unpaid councils, told them through the city attorney’s office that a state conflict-of-interest law would prohibit their boards from giving money to a school if even one of the 15 board members has a child going to the school. That could affect many neighborhood council districts, especially those that have only one middle or high school within their boundaries.
“It seems problematic,” said LA Unified school board member Monica Ratliff, mentioning the situation at a committee meeting last week. “That will impact our budget and the budget of the schools.”
She pointed out that if a school, for example, wanted to start a mariachi program, it could come to the neighborhood council to pay for costumes. This new ruling could “prevent the neighborhood councils from reviewing a request if there’s a member that is a parent at that school.” She asked staff to review the issue for their next Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee meeting.
Fellow board member Richard Vladovic pointed out that many schools go to the neighborhood councils to get money for special events or special needs.
For example, when students were going to paint a mural at Taper Avenue Elementary School, the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council gave them $1,500 to kick off the project. When Walter Reed Middle School needed expensive timpani drums for their school orchestra, the Studio City Neighborhood Council stepped up with $5,000. And when the garden at Eagle Rock Elementary dried up because of a broken irrigation system, the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council granted them $750 to fix it.
“The schools come to the neighborhood councils when they have a need,” said Garry Fordyce, who has served on the North Hills West Neighborhood Council and has started one of the few education committees among the councils. “We are a bit groundbreaking because we are reaching out to the schools to see their needs and how the neighborhood council can help.”
But Fordyce said that restricting councils from giving money to schools if a member had a child going to the school would be harmful. “That is a stupid law, and it would have destroyed the neighborhood council system,” said Fordyce. “You want people to get involved, and I think the city attorney’s office overreacted at first when they told us this.”
DONE issued a statement last week that made the potential for conflict less daunting, according to Steven Box, DONE’s director of outreach and communication. “The concern would be if only one person’s child who is on the board would benefit from the grant to the school,” Box said.
In the clarification, DONE noted that the city attorney’s office “does not believe that the conflict of interest laws would preclude a [grant] being provided to a school for a general item that is available to all students, e.g., if the grant is for a playground, a board could award the [grant] even if the board member’s child will use the equipment.”
DONE recommends that the board member “disqualify himself or herself so as to avoid any issue under the common law bias doctrine and/or any appearance of a conflict. Disqualification means the board member may not nominate his/her child’s school to receive the grant, may not negotiate with fellow board members to nominate the schools of each other’s children” and more.
Fordyce and some other council members still find the wording restrictive and isolating, but they said they’re going to have to work with it.