School Bond Measure Gets Failing Grade

I have a picture on the wall of my office. It was taken at about 4 a.m. in 1998. I’m in the picture with a group of Democratic and Republican legislators. We look tired; we’ve been up late for a number of nights. But there’s also a glint of celebration.

That was a happy and proud moment. We had just negotiated Proposition 1A, which put $9.2 billion of school bonds on the ballot. This bipartisan breakthrough opened the way for three successful state school bonds that raised $34 billion for school construction.

I’ve also supported local school bonds, and the state and local money that voters entrusted to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is being used to build schools all over the city.

I don’t take this progress lightly or for granted. But building for seats is not the same as building for reform. To date, L.A. Unified has done the former but only paid lip service to the latter. And I find myself moving to an uncomfortable and unfamiliar position on the question of the school district’s bid to pass $3.985 billion in school bonds this November.

In truth, the public was promised more and has a right to expect more: that pre-K and after-school programs, as well as adult education, libraries, health-care access and recreation, would be programmed by design into each new school.

Our expectation was that the billions in bond proceeds would create safe learning centers within revitalized and healthy neighborhoods.

Instead, as it now stands, this costly investment is doomed to return little. We are losing more than half our students as dropouts, and these new schools are not poised to alter that outcome or even to dramatically improve the fate of the undereducated grads who stick it out. Our new schools must be more than just rain-free warehouses.

The school district is blowing it — squandering a historic opportunity and, in the process, perpetrating an ethical crime on the thousands of students whose future it is failing.

The competent and relentless former Navy men and real estate pros who now erect schools in Los Angeles just drive like a freight train toward the goal of building seats — without regard to the design and programming of these schools, without regard to what we know about how children learn, without regard to the relationship between educational achievement and the health and vitality of the neighborhoods in which these students live.

Look at the schools about to open. Too many of them are huge — when we know that children learn more successfully in small schools. We’re told the district will do better on the next round, but we’ve heard empty promises from the school district before.

The district also earns a failing grade on joint planning. Now is the time, with schools rising all over the city, for the school district to work with the city, health agencies, nonprofits, parks departments, housing developers and community groups to build schools that are planned as the center of communities. LAUSD sees collaborative planning with community input as too time consuming and expensive.

Yes, collaboration is harder than building schools as though they’re islands walled off from a hostile sea. But thoughtful, joint planning pays off for generations to come.

One good example is in San Diego, where a collaborative planning process — which involved a school, along with other services and development — transformed blighted City Heights.

There are one or two exceptions to the L.A. malaise, including a new school in Westlake, just west of downtown, that involves collaboration with a Boys & Girls Club, the city and an affordable-housing developer.

But such joint planning stands out for being so rare. And outside entities that have tried to collaborate with the district’s bureaucracy can tell horror stories of how difficult it’s been. On the district side, there’s no real energy, interest or aptitude applied to the necessary re-imagining of schools.

I don’t speak for my friend, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, although I do know he shares my passion for improving the schools of Los Angeles. But as for me, I’m just tired of this same old, same old.

I’m tired of just going back to the voters and asking them to pass more money to just build more classroom seats. This bond measure represents the same old cookie-cutter: Grab the cash, pull the wool over the voters’ eyes and not learn from your experiences.

We know what we need to do. We need to make schools smaller and anchor them in neighborhoods, so that there will be more grandmothers than cops on our campuses. Chicago, New York and Providence, R.I, have shown the way.

Let’s make this bond — L.A.’s fourth since 1997 — reflect truly important educational and community values. In this bond, we must limit the enrollment at a school, absent compelling reasons. And if the school site is larger than 500, it must be divided into separate facilities with separate principals. And there must be guidelines regarding joint use, possibly including a joint-powers authority set up between the city of Los Angeles and LAUSD.

We can incorporate these principles and guidelines into the bond.

District officials can easily take action at a school board meeting before the November special election. They can mandate that bond proceeds be spent for small schools that are planned and constructed as the centers of their neighborhoods. Until such changes are made, I must oppose this school bond measure — with the greatest reluctance and a heavy heart.

I am not, however, checking out of the issue. If this school bond passes, I will continue to pressure school board members to spend wisely. But I’d rather they alter course and get it right now, so I can change my mind and support the bond.

Until then, a resounding “no” is the best way to send the school district a message that may benefit children down the road.

Attorney and former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg ran for mayor of Los Angeles this year and has served as an adviser to both Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Bill Tackles Life Insurance Blacklist

New York state legislators are trying to prevent insurance companies from blacklisting travelers to Israel so that they cannot obtain life insurance coverage.

Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York Assembly, and Assemblyman Peter Grannis unveiled a bill Jan. 15 that would bar state insurance firms from denying life insurance to anyone who has traveled to Israel.

"I don’t know what Israel travel means: Is it risky lifestyle?" Silver said. "Does this smack of anti-Semitism? Does it smack of participation in an Arab boycott?"

Their move came in response to a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency report that several major insurance companies around the country are refusing to issue life insurance policies to applicants who recently have visited Israel or, in some cases, to those who plan to travel to Israel or 27 other nations for which the State Department has issued a travel advisory.

The New York bill is aimed solely at insurers that "discriminate" against those who already have been to Israel, Silver said, in part because he has not heard of policy applications asking about future travel plans.

Several top insurance companies, including Allstate, State Farm and TIAA-CREF, recently said that they won’t underwrite life insurance policies for people planning to visit Israel or other U.S.-designated hot spots, because they consider such travel too high-risk.

Meanwhile, a young public relations professional in Washington reported that Fidelity Investments denied his otherwise trouble-free application for insurance, because he had visited Israel in 2002.

Officials with Jewish organizations said they had heard of similar cases over the past year. They said the story sparked yet more reports of recent rejections of Jews who had gone to Israel.

"After the story broke, other people told us about it, but they’d never talked about it because they were embarrassed," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein could not say how many people complained but said they were all from New York. Silver said he also received three complaints. At a recent news conference, the legislator introduced one such case, that of Dennis Rapps of the Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs.

In the wake of the report, Hoenlein approached Silver, who in 1996 had introduced similar legislation when the New York-based Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. denied life insurance to a senior member of the Orthodox Union (OU) who often visited Israel. In that case, Metropolitan scrapped its policy, and the legislation never reached a vote. But Silver and Grannis’ spokesman, Peter Newell, said they expect the current bill to easily win support in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

Silver also said he would bring the bill to other state insurance commissioners and the National Conference of Insurance Legislators in hopes that the New York bill can serve as a model for other states.

Hoenlein and senior officials of other Jewish groups said they would welcome such national attention, in part because they fear insurance red-lining could threaten U.S. travel to Israel at time when the Jewish State can’t afford a further drop in tourism.

"Our community is committed to tourism to Israel, and no one should have to suffer this kind of discrimination," said Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs and communal relations for the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington.

If such denials "are more widely imposed," Hoenlein said, "people are not going to risk not getting life insurance by going to Israel."

Sarina Roffe, director of communications for the Jewish National Fund, reported that she also was a victim of the boycott on hot spots. Roffe said she recently attempted to switch her life insurance policy with John Hancock Insurance and Financial Services but was rejected, because she had visited Israel within the past two years.

"Within 20 minutes, my agent called and said, ‘You’re out,’" she said. "You just don’t think of Israel as an extreme place. You just don’t think it’s going to affect you."

The agent also told her that "no one" in the insurance industry is "writing policies for anyone who has been to Israel," Roffe said.

Your Letters

Legislators Back Iraq

I am deeply disturbed and disappointed by the practically unanimous vote for the Iraqi Resolution by our California Democratic legislators (“Jewish Legislators Back Iraq Resolution,” Oct. 18). There are so many issues and so many unanswered questions about the threat, the impact on the Middle East and the aftermath of the conflict this president is intent on waging, that a reasonable person must ask, “How do you write a blank check to the administration?”

In the story, only Howard Berman had no doubts. I believe that our Jewish representatives are among the most capable in the United States and their “yes” votes are inexplicable to me.

It’s remarkable that almost the entire California Democratic congressional delegation voted “no,” except for the Jewish Congress members. What did the Jewish members know that wasn’t persuasive to the other members?

Gershon Lewis, Monterey Park

Professional-Lay Relations

I’m sure I’m not the only person to say “bravo” and “amen” to Gary Wexler for his marvelous and well-articulated opinion (“Professional-Lay Relations Need Examining,” Oct. 18). This has been a problem for many, many years, and is one that is rarely, if ever, addressed head-on.

I would suggest that every lay person serving in a leadership capacity be required to take two courses prior to beginning their service: “How to Govern Better and Manage Less” and “How to Control Your Runaway Ego.”

It’s a tribute to all the Jewish communal professionals that they stay around.

Ilene Olansky, Studio City

Big Brother

David N. Myers (“The Return of Big Brother?” Oct. 18) implies there is a moral equivalency in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when he writes there is “a struggle between two legitimate nationalist movements [Jewish and Arab] fighting over the same land.” He could not be more wrong!

Israel, which was created by the United Nations, is fighting to maintain its very existence in a war foisted on it by the Palestinians whose “struggle” includes eliminating the State of Israel. When Arab or other Muslim university campus organizations aggressively support the Palestinian cause, the question is, are they advocating the eradication of Israel?

Joseph M. Ellis, Woodland Hills


David N. Myers fears a new program of campus watch scrutiny at American universities more than he fears the anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing.

The only way to empower Jewish students is to permit all voices of the political spectrum to exchange ideas. A campus watch cannot be viewed as the return of Big Brother because this is not a governmental agency monitoring free speech, but private individuals seeking to protect the rights of many frightened Jewish students.

Phyllis Herskovitz, Beverly Hills

Jewish Population Study

In Rob Eshman’s editorial (“Safety in Numbers,” Oct. 11) regarding the dwindling American Jewish population, I found the closing two sentences to ring true: “The difference between the Jews of antiquity and ourselves, Cohen said, is that ‘they had a clear sense of what they were about.’ The question is, do we?”

Our only hope for maintaining Jewish identity while immersed in the American mainstream is to deepen our commitment to Jewish learning and practice. We know the requirements for Jewish survival. The question is, do we have the will to implement them?

Shana Kramer, Director Torah Umeshorah Creative Learning Pavilion

Does anyone else note the irony between one articlelamenting the declining Jewish population (“Population Study Poses NewChallenges,” Oct. 11) and another lauding those dedicated Jewish women in theforefront of the reproductive rights movement (“Jewish Women Fight for Choice,”Oct. 11)?

Instead of crying about Jews not having enough children to replace themselves, may I suggest a radical notion? Jewish women should encourage their innate maternal desire to produce and nurture life.

The Orthodox often have very large families. They are more often than not as well-off financially. But somehow they manage to send their children to religious schools and keep them clothed and fed. Perhaps they have hand-me-downs and go without fancy dinners, piano lessons and vacations. But while mainstream Jews worry about declining numbers, embrace intermarriage by default and are forced to discuss the merits of Jewish proselytizing, the jam-packed Shabbat table in Orthodox households remains a testament to Jewish continuity.

Leslie Fuhrer Friedman, Venice


In “Shades of ‘Grey'” (Oct. 18), actor Allan Corduner plays the Jewish Auschwitz pathologist, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli.

Intifada at a Turning Point?

Could Israel and the Palestinians be reaching a turning point in their violent conflict?

A flurry of high-level contacts were expected this week, leading to suggestions that diplomatic efforts could finally be gaining some traction as the intifada nears its two-year point.

These suggestions came as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat faced a major challenge from Palestinian legislators, who were on the brink of voting no-confidence in his Cabinet this week. Arafat’s ministers forestalled the move by resigning en masse.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met Tuesday night with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Tel Aviv. During the meeting, Peres reiterated Israel’s willingness to withdraw from areas where the Palestinians take responsibility for stopping terrorist attacks.

Later, Peres’ office said Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer would meet with Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh in the coming days to discuss withdrawing Israeli troops from Arab sections of Hebron.

Finance officials from the two sides also were due to discuss the release of Palestinian tax money that Israel froze at the beginning of the intifada. In an overnight meeting, Peres and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly decided to transfer about $15 million of frozen tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority.

Reports also circulated of a possible meeting between Sharon and Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas reportedly called Sharon last week and asked for the meeting to discuss ways to end the violence.

Some observers speculated that Peres wanted to create at least a symbolic breakthrough before leaving for the United States, where he was scheduled to represent Israel at Sept. 11 memorial activities, address the U.N. General Assembly and hold diplomatic meetings in Washington.

Those who believe a turning point has been reached note the relative lull in violence in recent weeks.

Sharon said last week that, for the first time since the intifada began in September 2000, he saw the possibility of reaching a peace agreement — primarily because the Palestinians had despaired of winning Israeli concessions through violence. Despite such pronouncements, Sharon and other Israeli officials continue to dismiss Arafat as a possible peace partner.

Israel largely ignored a speech Arafat gave Monday before Palestinian legislators — the first time he has addressed them in 18 months — while U.S. officials dismissed it as nothing new. Arafat’s speech failed to discuss reforms in the Palestinian Authority, as many of the legislators had hoped, or to make an explicit call for an end to suicide bombing, as foreign governments had sought.

Arafat told the legislative council that he condemns "every act of terror against Israeli civilians," but did not say such attacks should be halted. He also omitted paragraphs, present in an earlier draft, that called for an end to suicide bombings in Israel.

A day later, Arafat’s Fatah movement released a letter saying it would prevent attacks on civilians in Israel. However, it suggested that it would continue targeting Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There was some confusion surrounding the letter. Commanders of Fatah’s military wing disassociated themselves from the letter, saying that violent struggle against Israel would continue. According to Fatah officials, debates over the content of the document have not ended, primarily over whether settlers should still be considered fair prey.

European involvement in the limited cease-fire efforts drew criticism. Israel’s army chief told the Cabinet Tuesday that the Europeans were in effect encouraging the Palestinians to restrict their attacks, rather than halt them altogether, Army Radio reported.

The tone of Arafat’s speech to legislators was not all conciliatory. He accused Israel of exploiting Palestinian terrorist attacks in order to attack Palestinians, and of using the Sept. 11 attacks to link the Palestinian Authority to terrorism.

Arafat’s address was viewed as a crucial test of his standing among the Palestinian public. But the speech was not well-received internationally, and even Palestinian critics lamented that he had missed the chance to make a major policy statement. At one point, Arafat said he was prepared to step down should someone wish to give him some rest by replacing him, but commentators agreed that he appeared to be joking.

The three-day meeting of legislators was convened to vote on the new Cabinet that Arafat appointed in June. On Wednesday, Arafat’s 21-member Cabinet was forced to resign to avoid being ousted by legislators in a no-confidence vote. Just moments before lawmakers were to hold the vote, Cabinet ministers submitted their resignations to Arafat. Protesting corruption and incompetence among Cabinet members, a majority of lawmakers speaking at Wednesday’s session of the Palestinian legislative council in Ramallah said they would vote against Arafat’s Cabinet.

Also on Wednesday, Arafat set Jan. 20 as the date for Palestinian presidential and legislative elections. The United States had sought to delay presidential elections in hopes of having the Palestinians create the office of prime minister, a move aimed at turning Arafat into a figurehead president.

On Monday, Israel began gradually lifting the three-day curfew imposed on Palestinian population centers during Rosh Hashanah. Just the same, Israeli troops remained on high alert for possible terrorist attacks.

The alert was issued as Israeli officials revealed that they had arrested three Palestinians accused of plotting to poison drinks at a Jerusalem cafe. Two confessed to their role in the plot, police said.

The third, who is the alleged ringleader, is a chef at the restaurant. He will be charged with attempted murder later this week, according to The Jerusalem Post.

On Tuesday, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that another attack had been thwarted, this one by a Hamas cell that planned to carry out a double suicide bombing at the Tel Hashomer Hospital near Tel Aviv. The report was based on details from an indictment filed in an Israeli military court against Mohammed Jarrar, 20, a Hamas activist in the Jenin refugee camp.

According to the indictment, two suicide bombers planned to sneak into Israel disguised as Muslim clerics. A doctor employed by Jenin Hospital drove the two bombers, but the three turned around when they saw large numbers of soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint, according to the report. Jarrar’s cell also planned to blow up a Tel Aviv skyscraper with a huge truck bomb, Ha’aretz reported.

As long as such reports continue to appear with alarming frequency, the chances for a real breakthrough on the diplomatic track remain slim.