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"Rather than a School Board"

Louis Pugliese finds a soundbite in LAUSD 3

There are few soundbites that say anything real about public schooling. Issues like charter schools, teacher evaluation, and decentralized budgets defy snappy packaging. Worse for school board candidates, they talk almost exclusively to people deeply involved with schools, even though their would-be voters are more often than not ordinary citizens who barely give a second thought about that car-magnet around the corner with all the kids and blaring klaxons.

Even so, the two candidates in LAUSD District 3 have now had a chance to try a couple of sound bites out last week.

"We have to make this board a Board of Education rather than a School Board." With this succinct statement, Louis Pugliese (photo, left, by Debbie Lopez) has got his defining sound bite down at last.

Pugliese favors curriculum oversight and a return to emphasis on classroom instruction for the LAUSD. A former classroom teacher himself who became involved in curriculum development at CSUN later, Pugliese thinks the District spends too much energy and money on physical plant and turf battles, and not enough on history, biology, and math.

He's running against incumbent Tamar Galatzan, who is telling audiences that she got "$85,000 for Non-Title I" schools in her district, the LAUSD's District 3. As a soundbite, though clunky, it's memorable to those who know what a Non Title I school is--parents/teachers/staff--and the dollars mentioned sound like real achievement to those who don't--everyone else. I don't know that the bite is really boast material, or even accurate, but it may impress voters on either side of the divide.

Galatzan's unglamorous "$85,000 for Non-Title I schools" is a very slippery claim, tough to refute, tough to question, tough to explain in the middle of a debate.

Two years ago, Superintendent Ramon Cortines was talking about budget "flexibility" and awarding $75,000 per school to take care of expenditures from nursing to art supplies. This money is not extra money--it's money taken from a central budget. Cortines, who wished to decentralize the LAUSD a decade ago and two years ago as well, thought that giving principals more control of more money was one way to do it. So the District's talented CFO, Megan Reilly, a $212K per appointee of former Superintendent David Brewer, created a flexibility fund for schools at Cortines' request.

But decentralization produced some clumsy results. Galatzan was told a year ago by teachers in her district, for instance, that schools were under-reporting special needs students as a consequence, because they needed to cut their school nurse budget, now budgeted by a principal rather than contracted by the district. It turned out that in permitting "$85,000 for Non-Title I schools" in District 3, the district lost all economy of scale when purchasing services like nursing.

It also found that principals have not had any training in rolling budgets. The average stay of a principal at a school in the LAUSD is barely over three years--which means that one-third of the time budgeting at school is done by a school rookie, and another third of the time by a sophomore. That's two-thirds of budgeting done by people with not only no experience with budgets but with inadequate experience at their own schools. With everything else on a principal's plate, it's barely enough time to learn a school's unique issues, let alone to know how to best spend money fixing them.

Charter schools are also a hot topic in the north half of the Pugliese/Galatzan district, which is also very Republican: Porter Ranch typically sends Republicans to City Council. Galatzan has consistently come down in favor of privatizing, charters, and soft-pedaling the Republican charter-speak code even while appeasing the southern, Democratic part of her district with suggestions of privilege for Non-Title I schools.

Pugliese told us at a lunch two weeks ago at a lunch that Tamar's team was even portraying him, Louis Pugliese, as a Republican. "Honest to God, imagine that," he says, laughing, acknowledging that it probably doesn't hurt him much in the north part of the district.

While Galatzan has retained the services of Eric Hacopian to steer her campaign, Pugliese is his own consultant. He almost received the endorsement of the powerful UTLA by remaining noncommittal to charters. But the UTLA yanked its would-be endorsement of Pugliese at the last minute when Galatzan's track record convinced the union that she would remain equally as demonstrably noncommittal to charters in the south half of her district as Pugliese might. (Her Galatzan Gazette had featured a moderately union-hostile LA Times story in October, when teacher measurement was in the public eye). The beleaguered but still strong union, ironically, which sources tell us was at one point poised to spend a lot on this race, became willing to sacrifice whatever happens at Granada Hills Charter II (currently in full fiasco mode) for the sake of spending the money on races elsewhere, where the choices are more stark.

Galatzan has been fairly artful at posing as a reformer of the District in which she is so deeply entrenched. We were bemused by her participation at the "Lemonade Initiative" in May 2009 at which midlife screwball Sandra Tsing Loh appeared wearing a Che beret and handed out flyers promoting an upcoming stage performance. Recent revelations about how Galatzan's present campaign is being financed--by the Mayor's top developer friends--have brought her reformer status into question among a wider circle as the call for reform itself becomes the insider status quo.

But Galatzan also dramatically underperformed in her last election bid, in a Council race against Paul Krekorian. Without big developer backing, finishing a very distant third behind not only Krekorian but political novice Chris Essel, the School Board member teared up on election night. Meanwhile, Louis Pugliese, in his last race, overperformed, nearly beating the Mayor's hopeful, Nury Martinez in a heartbreaker for many in the Pugliese camp.

This race is Pugliese's toughest yet, but the candidate has a happy-go-lucky attitude. "I've never had more fun in a race," Pugliese told us towards the end of our lunch, a glint in his eye suggesting that he was indeed having a good time.