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Bill Gates Alum Seeks to Thwart L.A.’s ‘End of Days’ School Cuts

Every Thursday at 7:30 a.m., John Deasy huddles with his top aides in the Los Angeles Unified School District to pore over data tracking everything from English language proficiency to attendance.

“We know the exact number of kids in algebra who are passing -- and what we are doing about those who are not -- in Van Nuys Middle School in Mrs. Jones’s classroom,” said Deasy, who’s responsible for 664,000 children in the nation’s largest school system outside New York City.

Deasy, 51, preached the importance of measuring performance when he was handing out educational grants for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest charity. Now he uses data as a tool to boost student achievement in a district where just 56 percent finish high school. He also hopes that statistics will show enough signs of improvement to persuade voters to pass tax increases, and help close a $543 million deficit for the year beginning July 1.

“The case we’re going to make to the voters is we have managed to massively downsize,” Deasy, a former chemistry and biology teacher, said Jan. 19 in an interview in his downtown Los Angeles office. “We cut $2 billion in the last three years and we increased achievement at the highest trajectory we’ve ever seen. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re nowhere near where we used to be.”

California Governor Jerry Brown is campaigning to put $6.9 billion of sales- and income-tax increases on the November ballot that could bring Deasy’s district an additional $237 million in the coming year. The superintendent hopes to pass a $278 million local property-tax increase in either the June primary or November’s general election.

‘End of Days’

The district’s revenue last year, at $6.3 billion, was $593 million lower than 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s due to state budget cutbacks and declining enrollment, Deasy said. He’s making contingency plans in the event the tax votes fail that include firing 8,000 of his 65,000 employees and shutting programs such as adult school, where those over age 18 earn high-school equivalency diplomas.

“If it goes down, you get really hurt,” Deasy said of the Democratic governor’s proposal. “Massive cuts, end of days.”

More than two-thirds, or 68 percent, of likely voters back Brown’s tax proposal, according to a poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Views might change by election day, especially if the ballot is crowded with other initiatives, according to Michael Shires, associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

Voter ‘Fatigue’

“Voters get fatigued when there’s a lot for them to decide,” Shires said. “The outcome also depends on the economic climate going into the election.”

Deasy’s property-tax increase may be a tougher sell. Los Angeles residents turned down a $100-per-parcel increase for the district two years ago. Deasy’s proposal would cost more than twice that annually for each of the district’s property owners.

Los Angeles Unified is grappling with the arrest Jan. 30 of a former elementary school teacher charged with sexually molesting 23 children between 2005 and 2010. Deasy said in a statement that he was “sick and horrified” by the behavior of the teacher, who was removed from school the day the district was notified of an investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“We hope the voters focus on the good work taking place every day in our schools, and on our dire financial situation, rather than the terrible acts allegedly committed by this individual,” said Thomas Waldman, a spokesman for the district.

‘Performance Meter’

The superintendent, who previously ran school districts in Santa Monica, California, and Prince George’s County, Maryland, came to Los Angeles after serving as deputy director for education at the Seattle-based Gates Foundation. He supervised large grants such as a $100 million contribution the foundation made in 2009 to Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida, to design ways to track teacher effectiveness.

At his Thursday meetings, Deasy distributes what he calls his “performance meter,” a list of statistics and target goals. It shows that the percentage of elementary students proficient in English, for example, rose to 50 percent last year from 39 percent in 2008. Deasy’s target is 74 percent by 2014.

Performance measurement is a focus of the 10-year-old Broad Superintendents Academy, a management training program sponsored by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, which Deasy attended.

“What I took away from that is, you don’t know your budget, you’re in trouble,” Deasy said. “You need to pay attention to where every single penny goes.”

Agreement With Union

The district has cut expenses by ending leases on buildings it didn’t need, rerouting buses to save on fuel and terminating contracts with consultants, Deasy said. Employment in the head office is down 54 percent from three years ago, he said.

Los Angeles Unified fired 853 teachers who failed to meet district standards last year, a record number, Deasy said. Spending on books and supplies is down 38 percent over the past five years, to $365 million.

In December, the district signed an agreement with the 35,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, agreeing to prevent some schools from being taken over by independent operators, such as charter schools. In exchange, the union agreed to give local principals, parents and teachers what Deasy called “stunning autonomies” over work schedules, hiring, curriculum and other operational decisions.

‘Doomsday Budgeting’

“If you’re not doing well, we’ll come in and intervene, that’s kind of the theory,” Deasy said of district management. “The central bureaucracy, we audit and regulate very well. We are likely to smother anything that’s good out there.”

Deasy’s talk of massive cuts has put district workers in a funk and forced them to delay personal purchases that could help the economy in a city with 11.6 percent unemployment, said Tim Delia, a special-education teacher and union board member.

“I think this kind of doomsday budgeting is really counter-productive,” Delia said.

Los Angeles voters aren’t in the mood to support higher taxes because unemployment is high and home values have fallen, according to Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which advocates for lower taxes.

The district already receives more per pupil than others in the state and overpays its staff, he said. Its 2010 revenue per student was $10,766, above the statewide average of $8,801.

Broad’s Support

California teachers were the third-highest paid in the nation at $67,000 annually in 2009, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Los Angeles Unified teachers were slightly below that statewide average, according to the state’s Education Department. Deasy earns $330,000 a year.

“They have taken advantage so many times,” Vosburgh said of district officials who have asked voters to approve $20.6 billion of bonds for school construction and repairs since 1997. “Taxpayers have already been victimized by the extensive over-bonding.”

Deasy has support from Broad, who said in an interview that he favors the governor’s proposed tax increases and believes the superintendent is “making real progress.”

Deasy said he hopes to raise $3 million from private donors for advertising to support his property-tax initiative.

“It’s these kids’ right to have the same education we had,” he said, “and that costs money.”

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