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Jon Coupal- Columnist

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

All LAUSD Scandals Seem Like Old News
Experts in dreadful management…

[Jon Coupal] 3/17/05

From Eureka to San Ysidro, and even beyond the borders of California, the Los Angeles Unified School District is the undisputed poster child of badly run school districts. To many, the district has become synonymous with its eight-year slow torture effort to build the nation's most expensive high school on an abandoned and toxic oil field. But most local observers know that it has a much longer history of dreadful management.

This is why, when an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's office revealed that the school district faces an unfunded $5 billion liability to provide full medical coverage to retired employees and their families, this outrageous news was met by a collective yawn. After all, if you are mugged on your way to work, it is a traumatizing experience, but if you are mugged every day, the routine of pulling out your wallet to fork over your cash becomes mundane.

The LAUSD is the nation's largest school district geographically, is second in enrollment, and has a budget greater than 20 of our 50 states. The LAUSD's size gives it major clout in the California education "industry." It is the tail that wags the dog. This is why administrators in other school districts roll their eyes at the mention of the LAUSD. They know that their work is made more difficult because of the negative image inflicted on public education by the Los Angeles district.

The LAUSD is so large, unwieldy and hidebound that it is impervious to outside stimuli. Parents have difficulty in communicating with the school board because each of the seven board members has about 600,000 constituents. School board meetings are held during the day at hours inconvenient to most parents, and they are held downtown -- meaning transportation can be difficult -- in a fortress-like environment. (Probably better to repel armed revolt).

Complaints by parents and local politicians fall on deaf ears. School board elections are held at odd times when there is little voter turnout. This allows the teachers union, whose members have the most at stake, to mobilize supporters and elect their hand-picked candidates. A few years ago, when then Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan put money behind a slate of non-union candidates who were elected, the bureaucracy sat on its hands and waited. Sure enough, after the next election the union-sponsored candidates were back in charge and nothing had changed.

Good top administrators are hired to be replaced by bad administrators, to be replaced by mediocre administrators. Regardless of their quality, the results are the same.

So it is not surprising that news of an unfunded retirement benefit obligation -- that could reach $11 billion under a worst-case scenario -- is shrugged off by school board and union officials. Given the LAUSD's structure, it is unremarkable that the warning that liabilities this large threaten the district's ability to operate in the future is ignored.

Maybe school officials are comforted by the knowledge that the district has been able to successfully pry $10 billion in bond money from local taxpayers over the last eight years. Perhaps they feel secure knowing that a large percentage of this bond money, which was approved by voters for capital improvements, has instead -- according the district's own auditors -- gone to payroll and consultants.

One LAUSD official who has broken the mold, at least on this issue, is chief operating officer Tim Buresh. He has been warning that the school board's "live for today" approach could lead to disaster. "In the corporate world, I'd go to jail for this" he said. "Corporations could never do this. L.A. has a Cadillac free-benefits system and we haven't put any money away to pay for it."

Buresh is right, of course, but we're dealing with the LAUSD where being right is no defense. The penalty for pointing out that this obese emperor has no clothes is likely to be "off with his head." We hope that the truthful Mr. Buresh has his resume in order. CRO

Jon Coupal is an attorney and President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

copyright 2005 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association



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