'Bloated bureaucracy' deflated

12th May 2000 at 01:00

Jon Marcus reports on the decentralisation of schooling in Los Angeles.

STRUGGLING to improve its students' performance, America's second-largest school district is taking a momentous step towards decentralisation that is being watched in other major cities.

Los Angeles schools are undergoing a sweeping reorganisation, with authority shifted from a single, central office into the hands of 11 new sub-districts. And in a system often criticised for bureaucratic inaction, the changes are happening at breakneck speed: approved in April and scheduled to be finished by July.

This means 11 new superintendents have to be hired within two months at a time when it has taken years to fill administrative vacancies in urban school districts.

The district's own interim superintendent, Ramon Cortines, has already announced his resignation. It takes effect on July 1, helping to account for the rush to implement the decentralisation plan.

The process will also result in 800 jobs being cut in the central office, and another 500 central office workers being moved into the new sub-districts.

Proponents said the LA school district, and other urban systems like it, grew too big too fast, and ended up as bloated and unresponsive centralised bureaucracies. Under the changes, they say, schools - and their staff - will be more accountable to parents. <> "Every principal in every one of the schools (will be) only one step removed from the superintendent and the superintendent one step removed from the general superintendent," said chief operating officer Howard Miller.

The system has 711,000 students, and some of its 11 new sub-districts will still have higher enrolments than major cities including San Francisco.

There were also practical reasons for the turnaround. Seventy per cent of Los Angeles parents in a recent poll rated the schools as only fair or poor, and at least six communities within the school district are attempting to secede altogether. Those critics - who complain of overcrowded classrooms, low student test scores and a shortage of textbooks - say that the reorganisation is a subterfuge.

"The district is not going to change," said Stephanie Carter, leader of a movement that has more than 20,000 petition signatures in the San Fernando Valley to pull out of the school district. "The district is dysfunctional."

Two important business groups sided with the decentralisation idea, but teachers said breaking up the school system would not solve its funding or staffing problems.

"I think this is a courageous first step we are taking," said Caprice Young, a member of the city's school board. "But I don't think it goes far enough. I think we need to have even more local control."

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