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BOARD GETS HELP WITH BUDGETING LAUSD REVAMPS OVERSIGHT.

Byline: Jennifer Radcliffe Staff Writer

To avoid inadvertently shortening summer sessions, prematurely cutting student funding or making other blunders, Los Angeles Unified School District board members will revamp an independent office to help oversee the $6.8 billion operating budget.

The new budget and policy office will replace a $1.2 million independent analysis unit, which was founded in the late 1970s and dismantled last year after board members decided its employees weren't providing unbiased information.

LAUSD board members said they need the extra help to get straight answers on financial questions.

``It's 'Government 101' ... to have checks and balances,'' board member David Tokofsky said. ``The board needs to have a fighting chance to get independent information to avoid fiascoes like the Belmont Learning Center, the Beaudry complex purchase and other boondoggles.''

The only drawback to the new office is that it took a year to create, he said. The board has worked with budget consultants in the interim.

``It's a very snail's-pace situation,'' he said.

Los Angeles Unified leaders have historically struggled to manage more than 700 schools, an operating budget of $6.8 billion and a staff of nearly 80,000. Board members routinely complain that they are forced to make rushed decisions with inadequate information.

Just this summer, some board members said that they were misled into increasing the LAUSD police department's funding by $2 million and cutting elementary summer school for two weeks to save $8 million. Last year, the board made the controversial decision to increase class size to save money, only to find out later that there was a $578 million surplus.

District Budget Director Lorenzo Tyner said he welcomes the oversight, which has been a historical function of school board members.

``I think it's important for them to have an independent look, like most large agencies have,'' he said.

Board members hope to hire a director for the office by the end of September. Three to five other workers could also be hired with the unit's budget of $700,000 a year.

The department was designed with the help of a nonprofit group, Urban Education Partnership, which spent several months interviewing board members and district employees to determine what they wanted and needed.

``Clearly the most critical issue, the board felt, was understanding issues around budget and finance,'' said Jon Fullerton, UEP vice president of strategy, evaluation, research and policy. ``To be effective, obviously, the school board needs to have access to the appropriate policy information and understand it.''

While most boards don't have this type of office, LAUSD's size and complexity make the extra oversight a necessity, Fullerton said. Board members, who are paid $2,000 a month, don't have the time or expertise to sort through the hundreds of budget decisions made each year in the 750,000-student district, he said.

Board President Jose Huizar hopes the office can also help the board determine the feasibility of policy decisions and ensure that staff members follow through on the board's directives.

``With part-time board members and so many complex issues, you need the additional staff and support,'' Huizar said.

Ultimately, board members take the fall when they increase class size or make other bad budget decisions, as critics say they have done in the past few years.

Board members said they need independent information to make sure that the staff's recommendations make sense and that budget cuts don't have unintended consequences.

``We're the ones who have to make the final decision,'' board member Marlene Canter said. ``The buck stops with us.''

Jennifer Radcliffe, (818) 713-3722

jennifer.radcliffe(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 10, 2004
Words:598
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