Clarity on autonomy sought from LAUSD

BY GARY WALKER

Loyola Marymount University will continue to honor its earlier agreement to assist Westchester schools with a variety of educational initiatives pertaining to local control, despite not having a signed contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Despite the absence of a contract, LMU has continued to provide a number of services to the five iDesign schools, and Shane Martin, the university’s dean of education, assured the Westchester community earlier this year that LMU would continue in that capacity.

“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 earlier interview.

Monique Epps, the director of the iDesign Division, which oversees autonomy in Westchester schools, confirmed June 2nd that the university would officially remain as the district’s network partner at least until Wednesday, June 30th.

“There is no existing MOU (memorandum of understanding) with LMU,” Epps told The Argonaut. “We are not currently seeking a network partner for the schools.”

What remains unclear is whether the university, which was introduced as a collaborator in assisting Westchester schools in their transition to autonomy in 2007 by former LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer, will continue in that capacity for the next academic year.

A Westchester parent who attended a recent meeting with LAUSD and iDesign officials said iDesign is working with new models beyond network partners and the Westchester schools can also seek other options instead of having an outside affiliate.

Parker Hudnut, LAUSD’S innovation and charter executive director, did not return calls for clarification regarding the district’s decision not to sign a contract with LMU.

Having assistance with the transition to autonomy from a prestigious university was seen as an asset for Westchester schools when the first contracts were signed in 2008. Network partners provide a variety of resources and funding to schools seeking academic independence from LAUSD. They can be nonprofit organizations or an academic institution such as LMU.

Uncertainty about the status of autonomy in Westchester hit its zenith during the first week in June after high school Principal Bruce Mims, who was hired by the high school’s governance council in December 2008, was fired by LAUSD.

Community members who have been involved in the push for academic independence from the school district were outraged, given the fact that they were under the impression that their governance councils, established through the local control movement, had the authority to hire the administrators of their choosing.

A whirlwind of changes in iDesign as well as at the top of the school district’s leadership chart and on the school board have also led to confusion about the status of the local control movement, say parents and teachers in Westchester.

There have been at least three new incarnations at iDesign, formerly called the iDivision, and two superintendents and a new school board since the inception of the school reform initiative in late 2007.

Hudnut and other officials, including Local District 3 Superintendent Michelle King, joined Westchester High teacher Kenneth Tiegs at a meeting June 4th to clarify what autonomies the local schools and governance councils, which function as the decision making bodies in iDesign schools, are entitled to under the current agreement.

Tiegs, the chair of the high school’s governance council, called the meeting “relatively successful” and said the district informed him that LAUSD’s budget deficit has been a factor in how autonomy has been implemented at the Westchester schools that have joined the iDesign Division.

“(The ability to hire and fire) seems to be one of the most important things to obtain,” the teacher said. “There’s been a lot of turnover in the iDesign Division and in the leadership at LAUSD, and with the budget crisis still going on, all of this contributes to the uncertainty about autonomy.”

Schools in iDesign will now be asked what specific autonomies they would like and how they will be implemented.

Autonomy leaders saw the district’s decision in March to close the office of Learning and Leadership at the end of the month as a troubling sign for the local control initiative. The head of that office, Stephen Rochelle, acknowledged in a letter that the closure of his office was due to LAUSD’s budget shortfall, which is currently $640 million.

“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 management of the five iDesign schools within Loyola Marymount University’s Family of Schools.”

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

Rochelle has since been installed as the interim principal at the high school.

In the aftermath of Mims’ firing, Martin recently addressed the university’s commitment to Westchester again.

“We have not backed away from our commitment to our local schools,” the dean reiterated. “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.”

United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy is not surprised that the school district has not signed a contract with LMU.

“In the beginning, when autonomy was unfolding, it was important to have a network partner like LMU,” Duffy said. “I think that LAUSD realizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to school reform.”

Martin said throughout all of the changes at the school district, LMU has not wavered from its agreement.

“We have been the only constant in this process,” Martin noted. “We’ve tried to be a good network partner to LAUSD while they have changed numerous times.”

Tiegs said LAUSD officials told him that the governance council would have more input in choosing the next principal at the high school.

“But I don’t know how well it will be received,” he added.

Epps said LAUSD would take the governance council’s recommendations into consideration when hiring the new principal.

“In terms of selection, we will make sure that they will be involved in the process going forward,” she said.

Duffy said he understands the frustrations of some of the parents, teachers and other community members with what they perceive as an attempt to sabotage autonomy by LAUSD for its failure to sign an agreement with LMU.

“I think the district thought that LMU was not capable of providing the kind of services that they need,” he said. “There was always a disconnect between LMU, LAUSD and iDesign.”

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