The fiscal, academic and bureaucratic obstacles and challenges of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest in the nation, have been well documented. While the district has made progress in a number of areas, dropout rates remain high, many students are struggling academically and the chasm between the teachers union and the LAUSD administration seems to grow daily.
None of that seems to deter Michael Stryer, a Fairfax High School teacher who is seeking to replace Marlene Canter on the L.A. Unified school board in District 4, which includes Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista and Playa Vista.
“I’ve always wanted to be a high school teacher,” said Stryer, who teaches advance placement history. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine.”
The school district’s financial problems are the focal point of LAUSD’s many challenges and solving them is the first priority, according to Stryer. In an interview with The Argonaut on January 29th, he listed his priorities for turning the district around and touched on a number of local topics that pertain to Westside schools.
“On a daily basis, I see the best and the worst of LAUSD,” Stryer began. “I see the shortcomings and the inconsistent quality of teachers, and the fact that some of our schools are not safe.”
A former executive of what is now investment bank J.P. Morgan, Stryer says that his ability to understand budgets is one advantage that he will have going into the campaign to replace Canter.
“I think that I’m a bit different from other candidates in my experience with finances and international markets,” Stryer said. “Financial reform is critical in order for LAUSD to begin to reform other areas of the district.”
That could be easier said than done.
LAUSD is facing the prospect of laying off teachers and cutting other student services as it struggles to close a budget deficit that has soared to more than $250 million. And in the next fiscal year, the shortfall is estimated to be at least $300 million.
Paul Duke, a Venice resident who teaches physical education at University High School in West Los Angeles, would like to see the new school board member focus on what many consider to be a very top-heavy administration at the school district.
“Dismantling the LAUSD bureaucracy should be a top priority,” said Duke. “Our new school board member should act as an advocate for transparency when it comes to budgets, something that LAUSD has not done in previous years.”
Westchester schools are moving in the direction of cutting through the aforementioned red tape by establishing their own local governance structures through autonomy within LAUSD. Stryer says that he was aware of the autonomy effort and feels that reform measures do not receive the support that they should from the school district’s administration.
“Charter schools and autonomy can be very good for the district, and LAUSD could be more effective in making that happen,” he said. “I think the district has put obstacles in the way of these reform efforts.”
LAUSD opened the iDesign Division last year to assist the schools in Westchester that are a part of the autonomy movement, and former L.A. Unified Superintendent David L. Brewer strongly backed the reform effort as well.
“I think, to be very frank, we’re in a system that is not working for us,” Brewer acknowledged before an audience of parents at Westchester High School in December 2007.
The former superintendent said that he believes that the new reform can help to close what he termed “the achievement gap” between African Americans and other students who are not progressing as well as they should.
Ingrid Lamoureaux, whose children have attended Westchester schools, hopes that the next school board member will work with those who have been at the forefront of the autonomy movement.
“I also want someone who
cares and who will fight for our children,” added Lamoureux, who is a member of the Westchester High governance transition team.
Stryer said that he would work with community- and parent-led organizations, which he thinks often can provide insight into what is transpiring at a neighborhood school.
“There are some LAUSD school board members who live in isolated bubbles within the Beaudry building and don’t talk to neighborhood groups,” said Stryer, referring to the district’s downtown headquarters.
The District 4 candidate touched on the board’s plan to close schools last year as an ill-fated idea and referenced Playa del Rey Elementary School in Del Rey.
“Playa del Rey Elementary is very important to the local community and it is critical to have local schools that parents support,” he said.
Above all, providing funding to schools is what the Fairfax High teacher sees as the most critical role for a member of LAUSD’s governing body.
“The most important thing for a board member is to make sure that the most money possible is going to the schools,” Stryer asserted. “I combine current classroom experience and teaching with proven experience in the financial sector, which will be an advantage in knowing how to direct money to the schools.”
Duke hopes that the next school board member will be someone who will hold the district accountable for its expenditures, especially those that are not classroom-related. LAUSD has spent millions of dollars on consultants’ fees, including the consulting firm that was at the forefront of the payroll scandal that began in 2007.
“That money should be spent on teachers and student needs,” Duke said.
Although his aspirations are to become a member of the school district’s governing board, Stryer admitted that it would not be easy leaving the classroom for LAUSD headquarters.
“I’d miss the direct contact with the students,” he said. “We’re in a very exciting time. Our students are excited about the future, and I’m excited about it too.”
The school board election will be held Tuesday, March 3rd.