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.

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.

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun, on stage at A Noise Within theater in Pasadena. Photos by Craig Schwartz.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas hosted a special performance of the Tony Award-winning A Raisin in the Sun for more than 300 people from across the Second District, many of whom had never been to a theater before.

“Theater has the power to engage, educate, empower, transform individuals and communities, achieve social justice initiatives, and bring communities closer together,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal work, tells the story of an African-American family living in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side during the 1950s, as they struggle with competing dreams and racial intolerance. Even decades after it was first performed, the play remains a resonant story of hope and the need to retain dignity in a hostile world. Its title was inspired by a line from Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas at the theater production of A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Martin Zamora/Board of Supervisors

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas invited attendees from schools, youth groups, seniors, veterans, and community-based service organizations to watch the play at A Noise Within theater in Pasadena, with a cast that includes Ben Cain and Toya Turner under the direction of Gregg Daniel. Many in the audience expressed appreciation for the performance.

“Arts are very important to the community and we should have more,” said Thurman Jackson. “This is my first time watching a play like this, and it touched my heart. I want to find more plays to attend.”

Even the younger members of the audience were able to grasp the cultural and historic significance of the play. “I learned how people struggled back in the day,” said Marvin Williams, a student at Falcon Youth and Family Service.

“Arts as activism is incredibly relevant to today’s society and A Raisin in the Sun is incredibly relevant to reflect on what is happening in our community today and hopefully make an effective change,” said Alicia Green, director of education and community outreach at A Noise Within, which produces world-class performances of classical theatre and runs education programs committed to inspiring diverse audiences of all ages.

“I hope that in some way people can see themselves reflected on stage,” she said. “Whether it is a dream deferred or a dream recognized, I hope that everyone can recognize something in themselves that they are able to change for the future.”

After their curtain calls, the cast took questions from the audience.

Diversity in local arts institutions and programs is important to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who has sponsored eight other theater productions in the past, including Rodney King at the Bootleg Theater, Through the Looking Glass at the Kirk Douglas Theater, and Aladdin, in two languages, at Casa 0101.

Cast of A Raisin in the Sun on stage at A Noise Within. Photo by Martin Zamora/Board of Supervisors

Legendary Los Angeles Jazz Musician Turns 90

All photos by Henry Salazar / Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors paid tribute to the legendary jazz musician Ernie Andrews, who will be turning 90 on Christmas Day, 2017. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas presented him with a scroll and a birthday cake, and also led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday.

“Our local legend is in the house,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Join me in celebrating the one and only Ernie Andrews on his remarkable jazz career and his upcoming 90th birthday.”

“I appreciate the recognition,” Andrews said. “I’ve been doing nothing but singing for a living – over 72 years now. That’s all I’ve ever done and I’ve had a nice journey.”

All photos by Henry Salazar / Board of Supervisors.

“I have enjoyed the ride and I’m still enjoying the ride,” he added. “Thank you.”

Born in 1927, Andrews spent his early years in Philadelphia and Louisiana. After moving to Los Angeles in 1944, he soon made a name for himself as a bright young talent in the local jazz scene.

Songwriter Joe Greene heard him performing on Central Avenue and quickly signed him, eventually writing his biggest hit, “Soothe Me.”

Andrews joined the Harry James Orchestra in 1958, and adopted a lush pop-oriented orchestral sound. From the 70’s through the 90’s, he collaborated with many stellar musicians, including the Frank Capp-Nat Piece Orchestra, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and the Los Angeles Symphony Camerata. He also performed in such iconic events as the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival.

In 1986, his remarkable career was documented in the film “Blues for Central Avenue.”