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Cuts push LA Unified schools to break away from district

Marquee out front of Hamilton High
Tony Pierce / KPCC
Hamilton High School is one of several schools in the district considering transitioning to become a charter school.

A few months ago, the Los Angeles Unified school board approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts to the budgets of schools with mixed populations of middle-class and low-income students.

Parents and administrators at many of those schools say that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In response, many of them want to break away from the school district by filing for independent charter status.

The federal government grants Title One money to school districts with significant numbers of impoverished students – but those grants are in line for cuts. L.A. Unified had distributed Title One money to schools in which at least 40 percent of students live below the federal poverty line. Now that threshold will be 50 percent. That translates into cuts for nearly two dozen campuses, .

"Which meant a whole bunch of schools that were really relying on those anti-poverty dollars to run programs for students," says school board member Tamar Galatzan, "All of the sudden were looking at next year not having any of that money, which really was a huge blow to a number of schools"

Among the schools feeling the pinch is Hamilton High School, says its principal Gary Garcia.

"It’s a cut of $460,000 dollars. The result would be I would not have a full time nurse for student body of 3,000 students. My main concern is the counseling staff, the nurse, the tech, our tech person and class size reduction. Class size will go up."

The school’s considered converting to an independent charter for a couple of years. Garcia says the Title One cuts compel him and the pro-charter parents to step on the gas. He’s scrambling to meet a mid-March school district deadline for an application that might allow Hamilton High to go charter by the fall. Allen Zipper – the father of a ninth-grader at the school - is helping.

"One more cut and you realize how bad things are," Zipper says. "Classes are overcrowded. My daughter’s Spanish class – they didn’t have enough chairs for kids, they were sitting on the floor in some cases. When you get to that point you have to start looking at other ways to run the school because it’s not working at this level."

For many public school parents, Hamilton’s prestigious 900-student music magnet program makes it L.A. Unified’s flagship campus. The goal, Zipper says, is to protect that program along with its academic reputation and most experienced teachers.

The head of L.A. Unified’s charter school division, Jose Cole-Gutierrez, says his office is processing 32 letters of intent from district schools that want to convert to charters.

"There is a call for schools to be more creative, get more autonomies so they can meet the needs of their students. There’s obviously the budget climate. All of those issues combine to make schools have a greater sense of urgency as they explore, ‘What’s the best option for my school,'" says Cole-Gutierrez.

Cole-Gutierrez says a bundle of the requests are from the west San Fernando Valley. Many, he says, are applying to become “affiliated” charter schools that maintain a labor contract with United Teachers Los Angeles. Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks teachers voted recently to go that route. The continued union presence was a selling point for Millikan parent Shana Landsburg.

"There are some really good teachers that would probably leave because they’ve been there so long and they’re so close to retirement but they’re really good teachers but they would probably feel the need to stay within an LAUSD school," Landsburg says.

In recent years several of L.A. Unified’s best-performing campuses such as Palisades and Camino Real high schools have converted to charters in hopes of retaining more of their operating budgets.

Complicated formulas don’t make that a given, says UCLA education researcher John Rogers. He’s worried that some schools’ movement toward charters may hurt the district as a whole.

"When you incentivize the focus on your own small community you detract from the possibility of increasing the overall funding of education as a whole," he says. "And I think that has negative consequences for public education in Los Angeles and across the state."

School board member Galatzan has encouraged some of these schools to break away from L.A. Unified and go charter.

"There’s no other way for a lot of these schools to keep the money. The district, we have tried, I have tried in the five years that I’ve been there to figure out every way to adequately fund these non-Title One school but there really is no way," Galatzan says.

While the Title One cuts are nearly set in stone, the school district is preparing this month to approve another set of cuts for next school year.