February 27, 2000 - From the February, 2000 issue

A Tale Of Two Reform Efforts: What Lessons Can Pasadena Teach LAUSD?

L.A.'s recent charter reform effort shied away from school governance, letting those changes occur through the electoral process. Pasadena, however, is undertaking an entire charter reform effort based solely on schools. TPR was pleased to speak with Raphe Sonenshein, chief staff person for the Appointed Charter Reform Commission as well as Pasadena's Task Force, about those efforts and the difference between structural change and electoral change.


Raphe Sonenshein

Raphe, similar to your role on L.A.'s Appointed Charter Reform Commission, you're the lead staff person for Pasadena's charter and school reform efforts. Why don't we start by asking you to give our readers a sense of the issues the Pasadena Task Force is tackling, how they're tackling them, and the scope of your work?

Two years ago, the City of Pasadena went through a charter reform process that led to the creation of the City's first separately elected mayor. Near the end of that process, the charter reform commissioners became very interested in school governance because many questions had been raised about Pasadena's School District.

So last year, the City Council established a Charter Reform Task Force on School District Governance. The Task Force was originally envisioned to focus on Pasadena's City Charter because it controls the nature of School Board elections, the number of members, and whether they will be elected at-large or by district.

But community interest in examining the Pasadena school system was so intense that the City Council expanded the Task Force's mission to determine what changes were needed to improve overall school governance-whether in the Charter, City ordinance, or in Board of Education policies.

What's the role of civic leadership-or the "civic elite"-in driving these efforts? People are often dismayed at the lack of a driving civic force in Southern California. What does the presence or absence of civic leadership mean to the government reform efforts with which you've been involved?

In Los Angeles, that leadership emerged in a number of different quarters. First, Mayor Riordan was always a strong advocate of Charter reform. He pushed charter reform very determinedly, and organized the campaign for its passage-even when he didn't get much of what he wanted.

We also had the remarkable phenomenon of two outstanding charter reform commission chairs-George Kieffer of the appointed and Erwin Chemerinsky of the elected-who took very powerful leadership roles. Those citizen commissions developed credibility separate from anybody with a particular agenda.

Also, a number of other elected officials were very active. Without the support of high-profile City officials-not to mention civic organizations like the League of Women Voters-it would have been much tougher.

Pasadena seems to have less of the mayor-council conflict that caused such grief in L.A.'s charter reform process. City Councilman and former Mayor Chris Holden chairs the Task Force, which was appointed by the City Council and includes another City Councilmember, the Mayor of Sierra Madre, one current and one former School Board member, and several community members. And Mayor Bill Bogaard has taken a great interest in the Task Force's work.

The support of newspapers and the media is extremely important, and in Los Angeles it took a long time for that media support to come around-although it did make a big difference at the end. The Task Force in Pasadena is getting serious local media coverage.

Besides all that, you need political people who think this will advance their goals and philosophy, because they have the greatest visibility. When something goes on the ballot, people want to know who endorses it, especially if it's a complicated issue.

One thing that's underrated in this charter reform process is how the image and approach of a commission shapes the success of governmental reform. That was certainly true in L.A, and I think it'll be true in Pasadena as well. These efforts don't rise and fall on one detail; they depend on a public sense of honest people undertaking an honest process.

The role of local officials, like the School Board & City Councilmembers, is often circumscribed by State government. How much reform at the local level is possible given the fact that since Prop. 13, local government's purse strings have been held by the State?

The most exciting decisions are made at the local level because that's where we directly change the way school districts operate. In the long run, all school reform is local, although greatly influenced by the State.

As for policy, the ability of local government-whether cities or school districts-to make decisions that improve the community is often underestimated. Certainly Pasadena's Task Force is operating under the assumption that the way the District is governed locally matters a great deal.

One concern often discussed in neighborhood meetings is the level of responsiveness by District and School Board officials to strongly felt community concerns. There are community engagement pilot projects in LAUSD and elsewhere that seek to bring communities to the table before and during facility site selection processes, the scheduling of school operations, and the evaluation of programs. How does community engagement factor into your work with the Pasadena School District?

Public involvement is fundamental not just to school site location, but to all District governance. However, school districts have much less experience with community engagement than other local governments-City councilmembers and mayors have positions that, by nature, put them in contact with the community on a regular basis.

The whole mindset around running a school district needs to be expanded to include community outreach. School districts everywhere just will not be successful if they are unable to connect to the community.

The Task Force invited Steven Bingler of Concordia to present the New Schools • Better Neighborhoods program last December. The issues of site selection and community involvement are as critical in Pasadena as they are in Los Angeles. The response to the presentation was very positive, and we hope that the New Schools model of community engagement in school development will continue to inform the process in Pasadena.

How much is school district responsiveness to the public a function of technical fixes like hiring more staff?

It's an approach issue as much as a staff issue. Staff certainly has some impact, but clearly school boards and school districts are under huge pressure to look at their mission differently. That's the fundamental thing. Once they see this not as a desirable adjunct to their mission but as a core part of the mission, staff will naturally adjust accordingly.

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School districts are really trying to figure out how their existing staff should deal with the public. To use a business analogy, as school districts develop more of a customer orientation, everybody in the organization will have to be an outreach person. It's not just hiring a few people to do outreach.

Does the promise of joint-use (schools, parks, libraries, health) facilities in Pasadena resonate with citizens and leaders? LAUSD and other school districts are exploring such opportunities, but have had problems executing them. Is Pasadena interested?

In Pasadena, even those who disagree on policy or structure agree that a stronger relationship is needed among City government, business, the District and the Board so that joint-use projects can occur.

For example, there's a lot of discussion about recreational facilities. Northwest Pasadena desperately needs schools and the whole City needs soccer fields, and there's a very strong sense that we need to break down the barriers among the governing institutions to meet these challenges. Can the City and the District share facilities in an environment where land is limited?

These barriers exist nationwide-this idea has developed that schools have their own construction program which is wholly separate from the City's construction program. And increasing that cooperation is complicated-it's a set of negotiations among very different governmental organizations, and it's hard to align organizational cultures. But there does seem to be a high degree of will in Pasadena toward trying to make that happen, which is promising.

Relate your Pasadena responsibilities to those involved in your leadership of the just completed Los Angeles Appointed Charter Reform Commission. How did that work inform the work you're doing now?

The key issue in both settings is building toward consensus. When you're talking about changing government structures as opposed to government policies, you need a wider base of support than just winning 51% to 49%. Governmental reform works best when people buy into a process that they believe in and will find productive down the road.

One could go into reform efforts and say, "Here's our side and here's their side, and how can we beat them?" But that won't last. Governmental reforms stay in place for decades.

You also need to separate out the people currently in various positions and ask: If there were a different person in that role, would we still favor this particular reform? And in an era of term limits, people are more likely to look beyond their own position; today's city council member is tomorrow's city attorney or mayor. So maybe people are a little more flexible about reform than they'd be if they thought they would hold one post practically for life.

People sometimes use structural reform to support or oppose individuals, which is too short-term. Pasadena's Task Force seems extremely interested in the long-term structure and much less concerned about the people currently in various positions. That's the right path.

We tried to do that with the two Los Angeles Charter Reform Commissions, which helped create a strong consensus and a pretty large majority for the new Charter. The fact that the two Commissions could painstakingly agree on a single document was a critical sign to the public that they cared enough to work through the conflicts, and that the process could be trusted to offer a good result.

Address the relationship between charter reform and school reform. How do these reform efforts complement each other and how do they energize one another?

In Los Angeles, school reform and charter reform energized each other. The push for school reform helped focus public attention on charter reform because people were already in a mood to change governance structures. Schools got people motivated because they're more visible, whereas L.A. charter reform was more abstract. In Pasadena, the single focus on the schools automatically makes charter reform a tremendously lively issue, and not because there's a sudden mass interest in the City Charter.

What are the lessons learned, given your above statement, from your work with Los Angeles' charter reform effort?

While school reform was more dramatic than charter reform in Los Angeles, I think the new L.A. Charter will emerge as very significant in the next few years. The creation of neighborhood councils, Area Planning Commissions, and the new management authority for the mayor are extremely important reforms.

In fact, what's interesting about the LAUSD reforms is that they weren't as structural as charter reform was. They were more visible because the people in power changed through the electoral process. And that's a legitimate way to make reform happen, but it's quite different from how charter reform worked.

But doesn't the above answer support what the Los Angeles City Council asserted in criticism of the L.A. charter reform effort: What's important is who's leading us, not the structure of local government?

It's a different situation. The option to restructure LAUSD through the Charter still exists. The Commissions just chose not to pursue it beyond creating an advisory commission on school board redistricting and removing much of the Charter detail on school board elections. That was a wise decision-given the huge number of issues involved, it's hard to do justice to the complexities of school reform.

Pasadena made the same wise decision when it separated school reform from the earlier charter reform effort. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of revisiting what the Los Angeles City Charter says about LAUSD's structure because you may find that shifting the people-while creating a breakthrough that can lead to positive change-doesn't get you all the way to where you want to go.

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