Education, Arts & Culture

Fiscal Health Matters:
Can LAUSD Govern Accordingly?

Op-Ed

By Mark Ridley-Thomas

I recently had the opportunity to see Austin Beutner in action as the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District when we both visited the Boys Academic Leadership Academy at George Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A.

LAUSD is at a pivotal moment and must take advantage of this change in leadership to avert impending financial disaster. I urge Superintendent Beutner and the Board of Education to join forces to ensure the nation’s second largest school district and its students are thriving.

I recognize that our schools face profound educational challenges, with more than 60 percent of students struggling to read, write and speak fluently, and more than 70 percent struggling with math. Though the district had an 81 percent graduation rate in the previous school year, more than half of its graduates were found ineligible for admission to the UC and CSU systems.

Nevertheless, I remain steadfast in urging LAUSD to make fiscal solvency its top priority.

One might argue that the district doesn’t have a choice. With a deficit projected to surpass $400 million in the upcoming fiscal year, the District may become obligated to spend more outside the classroom than inside it. Unless reforms are implemented, and quickly, that gap will grow even wider. California school districts receive state funding based largely on attendance, and enrollment in the LAUSD has already dropped precipitously, down to 500,000 from a peak of 700,000.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up, engineers in Los Angeles helped put an American on the moon. Whether students want to be engineers, machinists, artists, doctors, teachers or even public servants, they need the basic building blocks of education. When even those are threatened by their school district’s financial instability, even the best academic innovations will fail.

Already, California ranks near states like Mississippi and Alabama – at the bottom of the list – in terms of how much it invests in students. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, provides more than $20,000 per pupil; compare that to just $15,000 in Los Angeles. But matching or even exceeding those numbers would not be enough of a solution, given LAUSD’s structural challenges.

Superintendent Beutner should work closely with the Board to appoint an independent fiscal monitor who will deliver monthly reports and recommend immediate steps to bolster economic stability that can be implemented within the 2018-2019 school year.

As teachers hold the key to our students’ success, I hope Superintendent Beutner will invest in them as well. He should consider teacher residency programs, as well as individualized professional development plans.

Superintendent Beutner should also prioritize improving the curriculum to adapt to the changing economy, and increase access to apprenticeships, paid internships, and specialized instruction that can better prepare students to join the workforce.

I always marvel at how Los Angeles County’s economy – the 17th largest in the world – continues to grow and diversify. The next generation of Angelenos must to be prepared to succeed in emerging job opportunities across all sectors, such as bioscience.

Previous superintendents have wrestled with the district’s grim fiscal reality with varying degrees of success and failure. Some established misguided priorities, while others aimed too low to be deemed truly successful.

Superintendent Beutner must have the courage to make bold decisions in the face of resistance, the business acumen to correct the district’s perilous finances, and an understanding of local culture and politics to carry out the necessary changes.

We cannot continue to do business as usual. We must ensure that future generations of Angelenos are empowered to lead our industries and our communities.

Mr. Superintendent, you now have the job you sought. Now show us how to save the District.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a former high school teacher and currently serves as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Foster Care Goes High Tech

Two hundred tech professionals, child welfare leaders, government officials and foster youth came together at Los Angeles’ “Silicon Beach” to explore technology as a solution for some of the toughest issues facing LA County’s foster care system.

“With your ideas and your fresh perspectives, we can continue to refine the role of technology in helping to transform the lives of some of our most vulnerable young people,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at this year’s hackathon at Fullscreen in Playa Vista.

#HackFosterCare +1 comes a year after a two-day event that brought together tech groups and resulted in nine projects targeting the County’s most vexing child welfare issues. This includes recruiting more foster parents, ensuring school stability for students in foster care, and managing the enormous task of administering visits for foster children and their biological families.

“The interaction between the local tech sector and the LA County foster care community has generated significant strategies for addressing foster care issues,” said Bobby Cagle, director of the County’s Department of Children and Familiy Services, the biggest foster care system in the nation. “We are extremely grateful to the LA County Board of Supervisors, the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative and Fullscreen for continuing to move the dialogue forward building on last year’s successes.”

Highlighted projects included:

  • FosterLAKids.org: Using Technology to Recruit and Develop Resource Families
  • Time2Connect: A Technological Solution for Scheduling & Managing Visitation
  • Harnessing Digital Media to Improve Foster Parent Recruitment & Retention
  • Disrupting Tech: Diversifying the Hiring Pool
  • FosterCode: Building Tech Skills for Foster Youth
  • Using Open Data to Improve Foster Care
  • Fast & Furious 9: Driving Toward Youth Outcomes Using Machine Learning Algorithms
  • Mentor2Mentor: A Youth Entrepreneurship Initiative by ScaleLA to Address Youth Homelessness
  • HopSkipDrive: Ride Sharing to Promote School Stability for Foster Youth

This latest event comes after a series of similarly themed foster care Hackathons at the White House, in New York City, Silicon Valley and the HackFosterCareLA kickoff event last year.

Supervisors Create First LA County Arts Department

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to create the first Los Angeles County Arts Department. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Board Chair Sheila Kuehl coauthored the motion with broad support from arts funders, creators and institutions.

“With a new arts department, we can further elevate the impact of the arts on our community, culture, and economy,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “The importance of the creative industries cannot be overstated, particularly in Los Angeles. Creativity is one of our most essential economic assets.”

According to the 2017 Otis Report on the Creative Economy, the total creative output generated by industries within the region’s creative economy was $190 billion in 2015. It also employed 759,000 people, which accounted for 1 in 8, or about 15 percent, of all private wage and salary workers in the region.

“Los Angeles County contains an unparalleled wealth of arts and culture. It makes sense that we establish a County department to support arts and culture. With this motion, we will provide the capacity for a robust department that can strengthen the arts and expand our commitment to cultural equity and inclusion,” said Supervisor Kuehl.

“This is a historic moment in the arts for this region,” said LA County Arts Commission Executive Director Kristin Sakoda. “It is world-class and community-based and there is still more to come!”

The LA County Arts Commission was initially established in 1947. It has grown in the last 70 years since from solely supporting local music performances to supporting hundreds of nonprofit organizations and functioning as a full-service local arts agency.

Throughout the decades, the Commission’s role has expanded to include innovative and meaningful programs including working with school districts throughout the County to develop and implement a strategic plan to integrate arts into K-12 public schools. It also administers the Civic Art program, where artists are aligned with capital projects to bring aesthetics and programming to the community in which the project is located.

It also oversees the iconic Arts Internship Program. To date, more than 2,000 college and university students participate in a paid internship for ten weeks during the summer in arts organizations and venues throughout the County.

“A County Department can make a deep impact in providing workforce training and advancing cultural equity and inclusion efforts,” said Stacy Lieberman, Deputy Director of The Broad.

The new County Department will retain the Arts Commission as an advisory body and will begin its transition by July 1, 2018.

Singing the Praises of a Jazz Legend

In honor of International Jazz Day, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas awarded a scroll to the world-renowned vocalist, Barbara Morrison, the most recorded jazz and blues artist of her generation.

During the ceremony, she sang a beautiful rendition of Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, drawing enthusiastic applause from the audience in the Board of Supervisors hearing room at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.

“I’m pleased to recognize Barbara Morrison, who has entertained and influenced jazz enthusiasts throughout the world for nearly six decades,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. 

Morrison has been entertaining and influencing jazz enthusiasts for nearly six decades, since her professional career began at age 10 with a performance at a Detroit radio station.

She relocated to Los Angeles in 1973 and began performing with blues artists Eddie Vinson and Johnny Otis. She recorded her first solo album in 1985 and now has more than 20 albums featuring original compositions of live and studio performances.

Since 1994, Morrison has taught jazz vocal classes at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. She has received three Grammy nominations, been recognized by National Public Radio as one of the Voices of the Century: 50 Greatest Female Jazz Vocalists, and received a Motown Heroes and Legends Award in 2015, Morrison continues to perform with her duo and trio throughout California and worldwide.  

Her list of accomplishments includes performing with noted jazz and blues artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Etta James, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, Esther Phillips and the Count Basie Orchestra. She has performed in such highly regarded venues as Carnegie Hall, the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Bern Jazz Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival.

She opened the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in 2008, and the California Jazz and Blues Museum seven years later, in the heart of the African American arts scene at the historic Leimert Park District of Los Angeles.

From Los Angeles to Memphis
A Fifty Year Journey

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tragic death by journeying to the place where he was assassinated in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

On April 4, 1968, 13-year-old Mark Ridley-Thomas was an eighth grader on the campus of George Washington Carver Middle School in southeast Los Angeles when news broke of Dr. King’s assassination. He had heard Dr. King’s unmistakable voice on the radio station KGFJ and, even as a young teenager, felt the power of his words and the tragedy of his loss.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Photo by Leroy Hamilton.

Inspired by the immortal I Have a Dream speech, Ridley-Thomas took an undergraduate course titled “Social Ethics of Martin Luther King” at Immaculate Heart College in 1974, on his way to earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with secondary and adult education teaching credentials. By 1976, he himself was teaching a full-length semester course on the philosophy of Dr. King to college preparatory students at Immaculate Heart High School.

In 1977, Ridley-Thomas was recruited to the local board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Los Angeles, an affiliate of the organization founded by Dr. King in 1957. By age 26, Ridley-Thomas had risen to become executive director of its Los Angeles Chapter. During the 80’s, Ridley-Thomas furthered his studies and deepened his writings on Dr. King while earning a Ph.D. in Social Ethics from the University of Southern California, with a focus on Social Criticism and Social Change.

Rev. Jesse Jackson and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Leroy Hamilton.

Ridley-Thomas headed the SCLC of Greater Los Angeles for a decade, from 1981 to 1991, working on such issues as school desegregation, police misconduct, domestic violence, sexual assault, dispute resolution, parental empowerment and voter registration. From 1991 to the present, Ridley-Thomas has held several elected public offices, guided by the philosophy of Dr. King on a range of critical issues, including police accountability, homelessness, voting rights, affordable quality education, living wage, and healthcare for all.

“Dr. King’s death was a turning point in my life as it relates to the philosophy of nonviolence,” the Supervisor said. “To be in Memphis now, 50 years later, is really quite moving.”

During his time in Memphis, the Supervisor visited the Lorraine Motel, where an assassin’s bullet felled Dr. King. The Supervisor also participated in discussions of Dr. King’s legacy; a celebration of Dr. King’s final sermon, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop; and a march and rally to the “mountaintop” at Mason Temple.

Among those who participated in the tributes were Rep. John Lewis, who marched with Dr. King in Selma; the Rev. James Lawson, who had invited Dr. King to Memphis in 1968; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Children’s Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman; and, finally, AFSCME president Lee Saunders, who served as event co-chair.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Rep. Karen Bass, Rev. James Lawson, and Maria Elena Durazo. Photo by Leroy Hamilton.

A contingent from Los Angeles traveled to Memphis to pay tribute to Dr. King, including Bishop Charles E. Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, also an event co-chair. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, actors Chris Tucker and Glynn Turman, and drummer Sheila E also made the journey, and noted photographer Leroy Hamilton documented the various events. They joined thousands of people from around the world in celebrating and commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. King.

“We have a lot of unfinished business related to justice, peace and human dignity,” the Supervisor said. “But the nation owes a great debt of gratitude to Dr. King and his family and all of those continuing to fight for justice and democracy.”

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Rev. James Lawson, AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders and Bishop Charles E. Blake. Photo by Leroy Hamilton.