Los Angeles Unified School District representatives joined parents, students and teachers from Venice and Mar Vista at an education summit at Venice High School on May 28th to exchange ideas on keeping families better informed and how they will be impacted by the district’s looming financial crisis.

The community gathering, sponsored by the Venice Neighborhood Council and the Mar Vista Community Council, drew an impressive crowd, and a panel comprised of LAUSD officials and a parent volunteer fielded a variety of questions regarding the burgeoning school district budget, which calls for approximately $131 million in new cuts by June 30th.

LAUSD school board member Marlene Canter, who represents Venice and Mar Vista, Michelle King of Local District 3 and Bill Ring, an organizer for Local District 3 Parent Community Advisory Council, were the invited guests and panel members at the summit.

Many of the questions pertained to the budget and why the board voted to authorize district employee layoffs in March. Canter voted with the majority, but said that her vote was to balance LAUSD’s budget, not to eliminate teacher positions.

“I’m very appreciative that parents generated this forum,” Canter told The Argonaut. “I think that it was very substantive.”

John Ayers, a Mar Vista resident whose children attend nearby Beethoven Elementary School, thought the summit was conducted well.

“I found the information that was discussed to be honest and the facts offered seemed to be based in the difficult budget reality we are faced with,” he said after the meeting. “This summit and others like it that are happening throughout our communities are critical components to the overall puzzle as we move toward greater schools.”

Canter concurred that gatherings like the summit were helpful in providing information to parents regarding school district policies that they may not have previously been familiar with, and said she welcomed that opportunity.

“Parents in particular, often didn’t have enough information about collective bargaining agreements and the education code,” she explained. “There are certain rules that we are bound by, and once they understand that, they can redirect their frustration toward the rules.”

Ayers, who is part of a community collaborative that provides free high-speed wireless Internet access locally called Open Mar Vista, said that the effect of the budget deficit was a topic that held tremendous importance to him and other parents.

“Teachers and parents like me are quite concerned about the long-term impact this all will have,” Ayers said.

He too believes that events such as last month’s meeting are very good venues for the public to learn firsthand about what is transpiring at their local schools and throughout LAUSD.

“I have found that many who attend meetings such as these are well informed and are often the individuals that take the important steps needed for better schools and healthier communities,” Ayers said.

Students from Venice High announced at the summit that they have created a new organization that they hope will give them a greater voice in academic decisions by the school district. The organization, called the Venice Student Union, arose in the aftermath of a protest by hundreds of Venice High School students last month to voice their frustration with LAUSD for not using federal stimulus money to save teacher positions.

LAUSD officials have chosen to use the federal money to reduce the district’s budget deficit over the next two years, which they say would lessen the number of layoffs to district personnel.

The student sit-in was also designed to support teachers who were prevented from engaging in a one-day work strike last month by a Superior Court judge after LAUSD filed a legal action to stop the strike.

“We, the Students of Venice High School, in order to form a more aware, vigilant, cohesive, and active student body, do hereby establish the Venice Student Union (VSU), thus insuring that our voices be heard,” the preamble to the student constitution reads.

The manifesto lists several sections, which include membership, an executive and a legislative body, a judicial branch comprised of alumni, student activism and student responsibility, accountability and conduct.

Canter said that she thought the idea of having a student union was very interesting, but that it requires certain accountability of the youth as well.

“When you have students who are taking responsibility for their education, that’s very important,” the school board member said. “But if you want to be part of a change, then you have to be responsible for being knowledgeable about what’s going on in the school district and why things are done the way they are.”

Elliot Goldstein, a senior at Venice High and one of the student leaders who organized last month’s sit-in, also thought that there were certain segments of the summit that could be valuable.

“I thought that it was very interesting as far as looking at the different problems of education,” he said.

But Goldstein was not pleased about one portion of the question and answer period, when he felt that school district officials chose to answer select questions from the audience and limited the time for him and other students to address the panel.

“I think that was a very good metaphor for the problem of how the district is not listening to parents and students,” the Venice High senior asserted. “My impression was that they were talking at the students and not to them.”

Canter, who said that she was unaware that the students wished to address the panel, pointed out that she was an invited guest and was not in charge of how the summit was run.

“I thought that they had as much of an opportunity as anyone to speak,” she said.

Ayers said he would be interested in seeing more community meetings that focused on education in the future.

“There has already been some discussion of additional forums like this one for our community and I look forward to supporting, participating and learning,” he said.