Public Education Is Everybody’s Business

Beutner

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been in the spotlight a lot this year. First there was a contentious teachers’ strike that shut down LA schools for six days, and resulted in a 6% pay raise for teachers. Then there was the hastily thrown together ballot measure that would have imposed a parcel tax to address the District’s long term funding problems. It failed, but there’s talk of another measure in 2020.

LAUSD is struggling. During the strike and leading up to the vote on the ballot measure people weren’t shy about offering their opinions on the subject. Some people see the District as dysfunctional, and many in that camp lay the blame on the School Board. Others say the District is getting hammered by larger societal changes that it has no control over. I think there’s some truth in both arguments.

You can certainly point to a number of mistakes the District has made. The botched rollout of two highly touted tech initiatives, iPads for all students and a new student accounting system, both under former Superintendent John Deasy, were costly and embarrassing failures. Recent revelations regarding serious problems within LAUSD’s Office of the Inspector General haven’t improved the District’s image.

But at the same time, LAUSD is facing problems that are crippling school districts across California. The biggest threat may be declining enrollment due to lower birth rates and a drop in immigration.  Because schools are funded based on student attendance, this means shrinking revenues. At the same time, pension obligations are ballooning, making it increasingly difficult to balance the budget. And since many of the District’s schools were built decades ago, maintenance costs are becoming unsustainable.

So when Austin Beutner took over as Superintendent last year, he certainly had his work cut out for him. I’m not Beutner’s biggest fan, but I do respect him for taking the job. Honestly, I don’t think anyone else wanted it. The District’s financial difficulties are so severe that, if they’re not resolved, the situation could result in a State takeover.

Recently the LA Downtown News ran an interview with Beutner where he talks about the challenges ahead. It’s worth reading. The Superintendent’s agenda is nothing radical. In fact, it’s just common sense.

“I think I have a pretty good understanding, and I think the people here do, of what works: an experienced school leader with the budget they need,” [Beutner] said. “A high-quality teacher in the classroom, colleagues to help support the social-emotional needs of the child. It’s not a secret.”

A lot of Angelenos may think that, because they don’t currently have kids enrolled in LAUSD, they don’t need to worry about the District’s future. Anybody who believes that is dead wrong. If we’re not giving kids the reading and math skills they need, if we’re not teaching them about this country’s history, if we’re not making them aware of what’s going on in the world around them, this city will only sink further into chaos and dysfunction. It may be a cliché, but it’s absolutely true: These kids are our future.

Myths, Math and Austin Beutner

Communities Speak Out against 4:00 am Bar Bill

Dntn Alcohol Castro Spk 2 1905

Miriam Castro, of Mujeres Transformando la Comunidad, speaks out against SB 58.

Today at City Hall people from communities all over LA spoke out against a bill that would extend hours of alcohol service in a number of California cities. The legislature is currently considering SB 58, authored by State Senator Scott Wiener, which would allow cities to push the closing time for bars and nightclubs to 4:00 am. A broad coalition of community and public health groups are pushing back, warning that passage of the bill would mean a significant increase in health and safety harms.

Dntn Alcohol Koretz Spk 1

Councilmember Paul Koretz talks about the billions of dollars lost due to alcohol-related harms.

Councilmember Paul Koretz started the event off by listing the staggering cost that California already pays for problems related to alcohol consumption, including billions spent for medical and mental health care, as well as expenses related to law enforcement. He was followed by Miriam Castro, of Mujeres Transformando la Comunidad, who emphasized the negative impacts that alcohol has on communities. Pueblo y Salud Program Director Brenda Villanueva made the point that prices for Uber and Lyft rise steeply in the early morning hours and public transit mostly shuts down, meaning that people leaving bars after 4:00 am might well decide to drive home. This also means that cities not covered by the new law could end up dealing with late night drunk drivers from neighboring cities, i.e. someone getting out of a club in Hollywood and driving through Burbank on their way home.

Dntn Alcohol Press 1905

The press showed up to cover the event.

Senator Wiener has framed the bill as a pilot program that could be ended if crime and DUIs rise, but the reality is that once cities extend hours of alcohol service it’s highly unlikely that closing times would be rolled back. The beverage and hospitality industries would be lobbying hard to stop cities from returning to a 2:00 am closing time. And it seems odd to call this a “pilot program” when the cities included account for well over ten percent of the State’s population. (The bill would cover Cathedral City, Coachella, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Palm Springs, Sacramento, San Francisco, and
West Hollywood.)

If you want to take a look at the bill yourself, here’s the link.

SB-58: Alcoholic Beverages, Hours of Sale

And if you want to talk to your State rep about this, you can follow this link for contact info.

Find Your Rep

Dntn Alcohol Signs 2 1905

 

 

Supervisors Approve Seriously Flawed LACMA Plan

LA BOS Image 2

On Tuesday the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a massive make-over of the LACMA campus. This was a major mistake. There’s been a lot of debate about the aesthetic quality of architect Peter Zumthor’s latest design, but really that’s a secondary issue. LACMA is a public institution and its primary purpose is to serve the public. I’m not the only one who feels that the project as proposed fails to accomplish that goal.

I wrote about the drawbacks to the plan a couple days ago, so I won’t go through it all again, but one of the main concerns is that LACMA is getting ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a new building with 10% less exhibition space. Does the LACMA Board really think that’s the best way to serve the public? Another serious problem with the new structure is that it doesn’t contain office space for most staff members, including curatorial staff. The museum will be renting space in a building across the street. Separating the staff from the exhibition space is a foolish and potentially costly move. How can anybody think this is a good idea?

To those who are angry about the loss of exhibition space, LACMA Director Michael Govan has said he wants to get away from the traditional idea of what a museum is. Rather than expecting people from all over LA County to come to the Wilshire District to look at art, Govan has proposed bringing the museum to the people by having LACMA open new spaces in various communities. Here are a couple paragraphs from the story in the LA Times….

Supervisor Kathryn Barger praised LACMA Director Michael Govan, who hopes to offset the loss of gallery space in the new building with future satellite locations in South Los Angeles and elsewhere.

“You really do have a vision, and it’s not just about four walls,” Barger said, later adding: “We believe it’s important to give exposure to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”

In theory this is a great idea. We shouldn’t keep clinging to old ideas about what a museum is, and the notion of creating different spaces in LA’s communities to engage the public directly makes perfect sense. But where’s the proposal for these satellite locations? What’s the budget? What’s the timetable? How is it going to happen?

Various sources reported that Govan pitched this idea in January 2018, and at the time he talked about the possibility of opening five different spaces anywhere between South LA and the Valley. What’s happened since then? Well, that same month the LA City Council approved an agreement which would allow the Department of Recreation & Parks to lease LACMA space at South Los Angeles Wetlands Park. The idea was that LACMA would gradually renovate an existing building at the same time it was providing programming in the park. Here’s an excerpt from the agreement.

LACMA proposes to begin providing museum programming services at designated recreation centers near the South LA Wetlands Park within six months of the execution of the Lease while the repair and retrofit work is being conducted in Building 71. Programming at the Park will be provided within eighteen (18) months of the execution of the Lease.

The LA City Council approved the lease in January 2018. The agreement says LACMA would start providing programming near the park within six months and that programming at the park would begin within 18 months. I looked all over the net. I looked at the Rec & Parks web site. I looked at the LACMA web site. I didn’t find anything about art-related activities provided by the museum anywhere near South LA Wetlands Park. The 18 month period will expire in July of this year. Will LACMA be providing programming at the park beginning in July?

What about the other locations? In July 2018 it was reported that LACMA had opened a small gallery at an elementary school near Westlake/MacArthur Park, but at that time it wasn’t yet open on weekends. Another site that’s been mentioned is Magic Johnson Park in South LA, but an article published in the LA Sentinel last month merely said that LACMA was “considering” a location there.

In other words, there is no plan in place. There are no details. Govan’s idea of bringing the museum to the people sounds good, but at this point it’s all up in the air. The locations haven’t been determined, there’s no timetable, and apparently no budget. This last part is especially concerning. Since fundraising for the new Wilshire campus has slowed, it’s hard to believe donors will be rushing forward with millions to fund this new idea of off-site locations. To say that the loss of exhibition space in the proposed building will be offset by new satellite locations without offering any concrete plan for how that’s going to happen is pathetic. Could some satellite spaces open in time? Possibly. But it’s also possible none of them will open.

I can’t believe anybody could buy this half-baked idea. But apparently the Board of Supervisors thought it all sounded great. You can read the write-up in the Times here.

LACMA’s $650 Million New Building Wins Approval from County Supervisors

 

Music in the Air

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A cold December night. Or cold for LA, anyway. Probably around sixty degrees. I got off the subway at Hollywood and Vine. When I reached the second level of the station I heard this delicate music somewhere nearby. As I got closer to the next escalator, I realized that someone behind me was playing an instrument that sounded like a harp. They seemed to be walking just a few feet behind me. I didn’t recognize a melody. Just these lovely, short, phrases that sounded something like snow falling.

As I got to the last escalator leading up to Hollywood Blvd., I caught the scent of the incense from the vendor who’s usually selling his wares there. It was so cool. This lovely music following me up to the street, and this sweet perfume hanging in the air. I decided I had to say something to whoever it was, so I turned around. It was a guy who might have been in his twenties holding a very small guitar. I said something like….,

“That’s very cool. Thanks.”

I think he said,

“Thanks. Have a good day.”

“You too.”

Then I was at street level, so I turned around and walked off into the December night.

Why Do We Keep Building in Areas with High Fire Risk?

Last week was a brutal one for California. Fires have been blazing up and down the State. In Southern California the Woolsey Fire hit Los Angeles and Ventura counties, forcing evacuations in Malibu, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks. Lives have been lost. Homes have been burned.

In recent years these blazes have become more frequent and more destructive. And while climate change is certainly a factor, there’s another issue that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

We keep building in fire-prone areas. On November 14 the LA Times ran a piece by Bettina Boxall highlighting the fact that cities continue to approve projects in places that are at high risk for fires. Boxall quotes Char Miller, Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College.

“Why is it that at the county, city, town level, we have repeatedly green-lit development in areas that we know are fire zones?”

Good question.

Earlier this week, when everyone was wondering how long the fires would burn and what communities were at risk, I recalled a hearing I attended a couple years ago. In 2016 the City Planning Commission greenlighted a project called The Vineyards in Porter Ranch which was comprised of a shopping center, a hotel, office space and over 200 residential units. I wondered what had happened since, and did a search on the net. I found this story on Curbed saying that they’d broken ground in June 2017.

Huge Development Under Way in Porter Ranch

It seemed to me I’d heard about blazes threatening the Porter Ranch area. I wondered if the project site was at risk for fire, so I went to ZIMAS, the City’s zoning information site. Clicking on the parcel, I found that the City of LA recognizes it as a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone”.

PR Vineyard SCREENSHOT from ZIMAS CROPPED

So what does this actually mean? Does it mean development is prohibited? No. When you click on the words “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone”, a text box pops up containing this paragraph.

Lands designated by the City of Los Angeles Fire Department pursuant to Government Code 51178 that were identified and recommended to local agencies by the Director of Forestry and Fire Protection based on criteria that includes fuel loading, slope, fire weather, and other relevant factors. These areas must comply with the Brush Clearance Requirements of the Fire Code. The Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone (VHFHSZ) was first established in the City of Los Angeles in 1999 and replaced the older “Mountain Fire District” and “Buffer Zone.”

In other words, the only requirement is compliance with LAFC regulations regarding brush clearance. So is there really any danger from fires in Porter Ranch?

Actually, yeah, there is.

A search using the words “Porter Ranch Fire” turned up a lot of results. In August of this year there was a small fire that the LAFD quickly snuffed out.

PR Fire Brush from LAFD 180809 CROPPED

Porter Ranch Brush Fire Quickly Stopped from LAFD, August 9, 2018

Another small blaze broke out last December.

PR Fire Image from Patch 171205

Porter Ranch Blaze Knocked Down from Patch, December 5, 2017

NBC reported that 15 acres burned in 2016.

PR Fire from NBC 161018 CROPPED

Brush Fire Burns in Porter Ranch

And back in 2008 the Sesnon Fire, AKA the Porter Ranch Fire, burned over 22 square miles.

Sesnon Fire from Wikipedia

As the Woolsey Fire burned this last week, ABC reported that area residents were worried about their safety.

Strong Winds Put Surrounding Communities near Porter Ranch on Edge

I’d be worried, too. In spite of the fact that the City of LA recognizes this as an area at high risk for fires, the Department of City Planning (DCP) doesn’t seem to have had any problem with approving new construction there. In addition to 266 apartments, The Vineyards includes a hotel with 100 rooms and a Kaiser medical office building. And this is one of the last open tracts in an area that has seen rapid growth since the 90s. In 2008 the DCP estimated the population was around 30,000. I wonder how quickly they’ll be able to evacuate all those people if the area is threatened by fire? Might be especially difficult at rush hour. I’ve heard traffic on Rinaldi gets pretty bad.

As California’s changing climate leads to hotter temperatures and drier vegetation, experts predict fires will become more frequent and more destructive. Why do we keep building in areas that are at risk of burning? Why do we keep putting people in harm’s way?


PS

After putting up this post, I ran across an excellent article by Emily Guerin on the same subject. She asks a lot of good questions, and gets some disturbing answers. Check it out.

Why do we keep building houses in places that burn down?

Don’t Let Sacramento Steal Your District. Tell Gov. Brown to Veto SB-1250.

CA Senate Floor

The California Legislature has sunk to a new low. At the end of this year’s legislative session they voted to approve SB-1250, which removes the requirement that California legislators live in the district they represent. Basically the bill says that anyone could be elected to represent a district as long as they maintain a residence there. In other words, a politician could live in Beverly Hills, but run to represent San Joaquin County as long as they rented an apartment there. And according to the text of SB-1250, this applies for both “The domicile of a Member of the Legislature or a Representative in the Congress of the United States….”

The implications of this are staggering. This means that any corporate-backed flunky could represent a California district even if they only flew in to campaign there. This means that stooges with enough PAC money behind them could buy themselves a seat in the legislature. And what’s even more scary is the fact that only a handful of legislators voted against this sleazy scam.

The Governor has not signed this bill yet. We need to flood Brown’s office with calls telling him to veto this assault on democracy.

On Monday, September 10, first thing in the morning, please call Governor Brown and tell him to veto SB-1250.

Phone: (916) 445-2841

If you can’t call, be sure to send an e-mail.

E-Mail Gov. Brown

And the second thing you should do is find out if your reps in the State Senate and Assembly voted for or against. Here’s the voting record.

SB-1250 Voting Record

If you don’t know who your reps are, use this link to find out.

Find Your Rep

If your reps voted to oppose this bill, call them and thank them. If they voted to approve it, don’t be shy about letting them know how you feel.

Here’s an editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle that lays it all out.

We Can Live without Legislators Who Don’t Live in their Districts