Members voted 4-3 last Tuesday to require the board to approve every major grant proposal before it can be submitted. The move was prompted by concerns that Superintendent John Deasy and his staff have hijacked the authority to make policy and budget decisions in their quest for supplemental funding.
"I'm looking for transparency, because every grant comes with strings attached," South Bay board member Richard Vladovic said in an interview. "We have been applying for grants that have strings regarding policy issues that were never discussed."
In introducing the resolution last Tuesday, Vladovic said he was upset about a $50 million grant the district received that stipulated the development of a merit-pay system for educators and the use of student test scores in performance evaluations -- controversial issues opposed by the teachers union.
He declined to identify the grant, saying he didn't want to embarrass the staffers who'd submitted the proposal.
However, he was apparently referring to the five-year Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which was announced in October. Staffers submitted the application for the competitive federal grant in June, around the time LAUSD began working on a court-ordered performance evaluation system that factored in student progress.
"We've had instances where the whole policy revolves around the grant, and the district has changed course based on money," he said.
Vladovic also noted that grants can also require matching funds, beefed-up staffing and new accountability measures. He said he's been concerned about those issues since taking office in 2007, but decided recently that it was time to act.
Deasy and some board members fear the new requirement will hinder the district's ability to win competitive grants, especially those with a narrow window for submitting an application. The school board meets just once a month, which means staffers will have to research, write and edit a proposal, then get it OK'd by the board, before the deadline passes.
"In a culture and condition where we're so desperately short of state funds and so reliant on grants, I'm worried about the district's opportunities for applying for additional funding," Deasy said in a phone interview.
Of immediate concern is a multimillion-dollar grant for struggling magnet high schools, officials said. The next board meeting is Jan. 15, with the application deadline just two weeks later.
"Any grant that you're serious about requires time to get input from stakeholders, plus time to design, write review and edit the document," said Donna Muncey, a key member of Deasy's senior staff.
"Grants are to the public school system what a college application is for a child," said Muncey, who headed the 10-member team that spent seven weeks on the district's 400-page application for a Race to the Top grant. "You don't sit down and do it in an afternoon."
Deasy said he was caught off-guard by Vladovic's motion and scrambled to compile a list of the major grants the district received in fiscal 2012. While most are so-called formula grants -- based on demographics and similar factors -- 20 others are large competitive awards that total more than $56 million.
Deasy estimated an additional $120 million is coming to the district in smaller awards and through grants sought by individual schools or teachers. The Facilities Division has at least $1 billion more in grant revenue.
Vladovic said facilities, maintenance and safety grants typically don't involve policy issues, so he's not really concerned about them. He also doesn't believe that most school-level grants will rise to the $1 million threshold.
Still, those details will have to be worked out as Deasy drafts the guidelines for complying with the new directive.
In crafting those guidelines, LAUSD might look to the policies in other districts.
Burbank Unified alerts its board to applications for grants over $100,000, but doesn't require formal approval, officials said.
The school board in Long Beach Unified, the second-largest district in Los Angeles County, has to sign off on all grant proposals over $5,000, officials said. In case of a looming deadline, staff submits the application and asks the board to ratify it retroactively -- withdrawing the proposal if there are objections.
Vladovic said he's continuing to work on the plan with the help of Tamar Galatzan, one of the three board members who voted against his resolution.
Galatzan, who represents the West San Fernando Valley, fought hard to defeat the proposal, saying the staff members and teachers who write the grants are already overworked and simply don't have the time to keep coming back to the board.
In an effort to streamline the process, she proposed that the board review only the applications that could impact policy, but her motion was defeated.
Now, she hopes the board and Deasy can agree on guidelines that will satisfy policy concerns but keep the money coming in.
"I'm hoping to work with Dr. Deasy and Dr. Vladovic and staff and really make sure that this resolution is narrowly tailored to those academic grants that involve board policy," she said.
Also keeping an eye on the new resolution are the education and nonprofit groups that partner with LAUSD in some grant programs.
Ryan Smith, who oversees education policy for the United Way, concurred with Galatzan about the need to create a review process that doesn't impede funding opportunities for local schools.
"This seems very political in nature and not student-focused in nature," he said.