Westchester schools that voted to embark on an ambitious mission to forge a new way of educating children and stand independently from the Los Angeles Unified School District two years ago anticipated some obstacles on the road toward autonomy.

But the latest bump is turning into a bitter pill to swallow for some community leaders who pushed for local control of their schools after learning that a district office created to assist in the transition will be dismantled in June.

With the school district grappling with a projected $640 million deficit, LAUSD officials are examining a variety of alternatives to close the budget gap. One of them will be to shut down the Office of Learning and Leadership, which was created to oversee the Westchester schools that opted to join the iDesign Division of LAUSD last year.

In a letter last month, Stephen Rochelle, the director of the leadership office, explained why the office will soon no longer be operational.

“As you are no doubt aware, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) faces unprecedented financial challenges due to the current budgetary crisis,” the letter states.

“As the district takes a sober look at its ability to continue to operate many of its programs and initiatives, it has become painfully apparent it cannot continue to support the Office of Learning and Leadership, which provides oversight and management of the five iDesign schools within Loyola Marymount University’s Family of Schools.”

The Family of Schools consists of all seven schools in Westchester, five of which have chosen the local control route. The university’s concept centers on ostensibly providing technical support and guidance as a network partner for the schools as they transition from district control to autonomy.

“Due to the lack of funds for operating the Office of Learning and Leadership, we all must together embark on a journey to identify what is the best structure to support the autonomies required for Family of Schools and have this new structure in place before the office closes on June 30th,” the letter continues. “There are several options each school might consider in order to maintain, improve and further their reform efforts.”

The dean of the School of Education at LMU, Shane Martin, sought to assure Westchester parents and teachers that the university remains a committed partner to the schools.

“Loyola Marymount University’s role remains unchanged in terms of our commitment to the Family of Schools and what our role is in this particular version of network partnership,” Martin said in an interview with The Argonaut.

There has been a degree of confusion within the Westchester community about the university’s role in the autonomy structure, and Martin said he welcomed the opportunity to make LMU’s position clear.

“I think that it is important to clarify that we are continuing with all of the programs and the partnerships that we committed to from the beginning,” the dean reiterated. “None of that will change.”

Martin said that the university has never wanted to take control of the local schools from the beginning of the autonomy movement.

“We’ve never felt that was the appropriate relationship for a university to have,” he said. “We do have resources and experience that we can bring to this partnership, but to have the schools report to us is not really a helpful way, we believe, to reform public education.”

For Westchester High School parents who viewed local control as the path to improving their local schools, the news that iDesign would face new challenges in the future is akin to a setback to the autonomy movement.

“I think that a lot of parents chose iDesign because it seemed almost parallel to charter (schools),” said Gail Levy, whose two older daughters graduated from the high school, where her youngest daughter is a junior. “It seems like we’re back to where we started.”

Kelly Kane, whose two children are students at Westport Heights Elementary School, one of the five schools within iDesign, is furious about Rochelle’s office closing.

“We signed a contract with LAUSD, and we will expect them to honor that contract,” said Kane, who helped spearhead the autonomy movement.

The district is proposing various options that the five schools could consider after Learning and Leadership closes. These options will be explored in the coming weeks when the iDesign plans to hold a series of informational meetings at selected school sites, LAUSD officials say.

Parker Hudnut, the executive director of Innovation and Charter Schools Division, and Local District 3 Superintendent Michelle King will continue to work with Rochelle. Local District 3 oversees all public schools in Mar Vista, Del Rey, Westchester and Venice.

Kane rejected the idea of anything except the concept of continuing toward local control, and scoffed at the notion of finding another network partner or possibly reverting to the prior arrangement with LAUSD oversight of the Westchester schools.

“We do not want to choose other plans,” she asserted. “I’m resentful that LAUSD is coming back to us to pay for something that they are being well paid for.”

Martin believes that the Westchester schools have moved forward with their respective governance plans and feels that they are in a good position to continue to make progress.

“There’s infrastructure in place at the local level, and I say that is a huge step forward,” he said. “I don’t believe that will change at all in terms of moving forward.”

Westport Heights, Cowan and Kentwood elementary schools, Orville Wright Middle School and Westchester High are the five schools that are a part of iDesign.

Each school has elected its own local governance councils, which Kane belongs to at Westport Heights.

The question that some parents and teachers are asking is what entity will provide oversight management and the day-to-day responsibility for the five Westchester schools that belong to iDesign.

Levy says before any new action is taken, it should involve a well-thought-out process.

“We need to look at all options, and not be rushed into anything,” she said.

Kane floated the possibility of legal action if any aspect of autonomy is lost.

“If LAUSD does not honor the contract that they signed with us, they could face a lawsuit for breach of contract,” Kane said.

Martin said the loss of Learning and Leadership will undoubtedly leave a gap in the transition to autonomy.

“That’s the question to be filled,” the LMU dean said. “What’s that gap going to be, and how is it going to be filled?”

Hudnut and King did not return calls to The Argonaut for comment.

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