An Activist Teacher, a Struggling School, and the School Closure Movement: A Story from (South) L.A.

OPINION:  Housed educators: Why is the District scapegoating teachers?

By David Lyell
UTLA Secretary

imageLet’s say you’ve been teaching for years. You’re well regarded among parents, students, teachers, and administrators. No one complains about you because you produce results— students consistently engaged and learning.

You’ve heard of rubber rooms, teacher jail, and housed teachers. You’ve seen YouTube videos where students openly talk about how easy it is to get a teacher fired. Students you respect have shared with you that they know there won’t be any consequences for them if they make false allegations against a teacher.

One day you’re informed that you are no longer to report to school. Why? You are told that you will later be provided the reason. But not right now. You’ve always been someone who follows the rules, and you know this mixup will be resolved in a few days. You report to an off-campus location, where other “housed” teachers are.

You learn about the three-step dismissal process. First you will have a Skelly hearing, a process where, by law, a supposedly neutral party informs you of the charges and makes a recommendation to the School Board. Yet you are told that these hearings are perfunctory—the Skelly officer is the exact opposite of neutral and with rare exception always recommends dismissal. After that, your case will be referred to the School Board. You won’t even be afforded the mere courtesy of addressing the board, even for two minutes, despite your years of service to the District’s students, and the Board will, with near certainty, vote to fire you. At that point you will be placed on unpaid leave, and your case will be referred to the Commission on Professional Competence, where a supposedly neutral three-person panel will decide whether you should be reinstated. Even if the CPC votes to reinstate, LAUSD can appeal, and either way, at this point it is unlikely you will ever return to the classroom. If the CPC upholds the decision, your case will be referred to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which will move to revoke your credential.

Whenever UTLA raises concerns about housed teachers, individually or collectively, our arguments, no matter how sound, are often met with silence. As but one small example, we’ve told the District we need to be notified when a teacher is housed. The District’s response is that the teacher may not want UTLA to be involved, and were District officials to provide notification, they would be violating the teacher’s confidentiality. The District only recently provided a list of the number of housed teachers per area.

District leadership has staff who are paid for with private foundation grants. Most of the children of these foundation leaders attend the very best private schools, affording every possible opportunity money and privilege can buy: small class sizes; plenty of nurses, counselors, librarians, psychiatric social workers, pupil service and attendance counselors, and other health and human services professionals; strong early childhood, arts and adult education programs; healthy food; clean, safe, fully staffed campuses; and the fostering of an environment where discipline issues are addressed in a serious manner and where teachers are respected and celebrated.

Yet, oddly, the focus of these foundation leaders isn’t on working to provide even a fraction of these same rich services to public school students. Their agenda instead is “teacher effectiveness,” which is merely code for efforts to eliminate seniority and due process rights.

Propelled by this private foundation money, District leadership and several School Board members have lobbied state and national legislators to gut seniority laws and have been trying to overwhelm UTLA with cases to defend.

You finally find out the allegations against you—the charges are vague at best, and the criminal investigation never even got started because there wasn’t even a hint of any substantiated evidence. Yet the District is refusing to allow you to return to the classroom.

You could sue for wrongful termination or age discrimination, but you know the District would drag the case on for years, and the legal costs alone would surely bankrupt you, never mind the effect a prolonged lawsuit would have on your health and that of your family.

You turn on the TV and see LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy state, “When an individual is accused of an egregious act like molesting a child or being arrested for prostitution, then they are housed while there’s an investigation.”

You protest aloud that when an individual is accused of an egregious act, that individual is not housed—that individual is arrested, jailed, charged, and criminally prosecuted. That’s why we have a criminal justice system, to responsibly address how to respond to outrageous acts against humanity, which is as it should be. You resent being lumped into such a category, and in such an incredibly misleading manner.

AB 1530 (Alex Padilla (D) Pacoima) was a bill introduced last year that sought to place the entire dismissal process in the hands of school boards. Even the L.A. Times—which usually doesn’t agree with UTLA on anything—opposed it, writing that the bill “goes too far.” (Padilla has now reintroduced the bill as SB 10.) Last November, after Assembly member Betsy Butler didn’t support the bill, she was viciously attacked in election mailers and even attacked in a very unbalanced “report” on national TV by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. In the March 6 school board election, Monica Garcia’s own campaign (her actual campaign and not an independent expenditure) sent out a mailer with the headline, “Her opponents stand up for predators.” Sadly, in both campaigns, the attacks worked: Betsy Butler was not reelected, and Garcia won reelection.

UTLA is fighting back on several fronts. We’ve set up a task force and are developing a toolkit so housed teachers will have a sense of what to do and what not to do when targeted by District leadership. We’re developing our own ever-changing list of housed teachers, so we can better communicate with and advocate for their rights (that list has been compiled without the help of LAUSD leadership). We’re also actively consulting with counsel to formulate a legal strategy to help stem the bloodletting of experienced, veteran, competent teachers who are, each and every day, continuing to have their livelihoods destroyed.

Are students well served when the witch hunt against teachers is perpetuated at the direct expense of real-life advocacy efforts to increase funding, lower class size, and provide even a tenth of a fraction of the same opportunities for public school students that the children of billionaires enjoy?

Teachers welcome responsibility, and that duty extends not just to teachers but to parents, students, and administrators as well. Why is it that what’s good enough for the children of billionaires isn’t good enough for all students?

“Don’t Hold Us Back” Movement Rallies at LAUSD Meeting

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News

image “Don’t Hold Us Back” is a coalition of parents, civil rights groups and community organizations that is calling for involvement in contract negotiations. At a rally this morning, the group spoke out to insure that the agreements provide students with quality education.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson is the president of community coalition.

“Typically community members are left out of this process. We are trying to insert ourselves and make it clear that we have opinions about it. We want to and expect to be heard…our kids only get one shot at this education to that’s important to us.”

Parents at the rally said they want to have a bigger role in the process. Felicia Jones is a parent of a LAUSD graduate.

“Parents need to be heard in this matter. For so long this has been a union and district issue but really parents are the ones who are ultimately impacted, students are impacted. And we want our voice heard. We want them to know what we care about as they negotiate.”

Jones says the campaign wants the contract to provide educators and administrators with more flexibility. She believes this will allow teachers to reach their full potential and offer better education.

The United Teachers of L.A. says it welcomes parent’s involvement. However, one point of contention with “Don’t Hold Us Back” is teacher seniority. The campaign calls for an end to the “last hired, first fired” rule. Harris-Dawson says it forces schools that frequently hire inexperienced teachers to bear the brunt of lay offs. The union firmly stands behind the policy and supports tenure for educators.

“Don’t Hold Us Back” also wants to include an objective, fair teacher evaluation system to reward teachers doing well and help those who aren’t.

Union demands LAUSD rehire laid-off teachers

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News

imageUnited Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) is calling on the district to rehire 1,200 teachers and support staff that were laid off last spring due to budget cuts.

UTLA held a news conference today in front of Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles–a particularly troubled school where 3,000 students learn in a space built for 1,000.

The problems at Manual Arts are about more than dealing with reduced resources. The school is currently under the management of a non-profit reform group and its influx of students is the result of a move from a year-round schedule to a traditional calendar this fall.

Representatives at the conference demanded the school district use its year-end surplus of $55 million from last school year to ease strained schools.

UTLA president Warren Fletcher says the biggest problem in LAUSD schools is overcrowded classrooms.

“We have gigantic class sizes. We have Algebra 2 classes with over 50 students. We have P.E. classes with over 80 students,” Fletcher said. “If you’re a seventh-grader and you’re in one of those ridiculously overcrowded classrooms–well–you don’t ever get to be in seventh grade again, so it is something that needs to happen now. The children can no longer wait for this.”

Manual Arts is one of two Los Angeles high schools that has been managed by independent non-profit L.A.’s Promise. The Los Angeles Times reported today that LAUSD officials are poised to retake substantial management control of the school.

While UTLA has been a critic of L.A.’s Promise, it says the district’s hoarding of its surplus funds is to blame for the troubles at Manual Arts and schools like it.

History teacher Daniel Beebe says the lack of staff is at Manual Arts is a problem

“Obviously, when you add eight, nine, 10 students to a classroom, it cuts down your ability to give the students the support and attention they deserve,” Beebe said.

A controversial state law, AB 114, was passed with the budget that prevents school districts from laying off teachers during budget shortages. UTLA says that under the law, the district has the go-ahead to bring teachers back into the classroom.

“This is a serious, serious matter, and the money is there to alleviate it,” Fletcher said. “The school board and the superintendent need to act now. We have already burned a month of school. We can’t burn a whole school year.”

Spokespersons for both LAUSD and L.A.’s Promise said they were unable to comment.

United Teachers Los Angeles protest proposed layoffs

Photographs by David Lyell, Secretary-Elect of United Teachers Los Angeles

imageSeveral hundred educators gathered outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters Tuesday to encourage the district to rescind the more than 5,000 layoff notices sent to Los Angeles teachers.

The protest comes in light of Superintendent John Deasy’s proposal of six furlough days in an attempt to salvage some of the lost positions. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) rejected this proposal, claiming the district has the money to prevent the furlough days and save the lost jobs after California Governor Jerry Brown’s $3 billion increase to the state education budget.

“The district needs to justify why we need these furloughs,” fourth-grade teacher Diana Cervantes, who received a layoff notice this year, told the Daily News. “Up until this point they haven’t been able to do that yet.”

UTLA’s protest, which they referred to as the “Pull the RIFs” rally, took place outside the Los Angeles Board of Education meeting.

Watch a slideshow of photographs from the protest:

Independent spending hits record high in Board of Education race

More than $928,000 in independent expenditures has been spent to fill four seats on the Los Angeles Board of Education.

As the March election draws nearer, the teachers’ union and the Coalition for School Reform are stepping up the independent spending to ensure their candidates are victorious.

Read the full story on KCET’s Under the Influence blog.

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Community gathers to spread word on Props 24 and 25


imageMembers of the South Los Angeles community gathered Saturday to be part of over 200,000 people throughout California to walk in neighborhoods to educate residents on Propositions 24 and 25. Prop. 24 would repeal corporate tax loopholes and restore over one billion dollars to the state budget. Prop. 25 would establish a simple majority for passing the state budget, rather than the two-thirds vote California currently has.

Both Propositions, if passed, would ultimately bring more money to the education budget of the state.

Listen to the audio story:

It was a Saturday morning four days before the midterm election and 40 people gathered on a cement patio outside a building on Florence Avenue in South Los Angeles. Community members, teachers and students gathered at the offices at the community organization SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education.) They have one common goal: to create change in California.

They hope change will come with Propositions 24 and 25. Two of the many Props on the midterm ballot. Prop. 24 would repeal corporate tax loopholes and restore over one billion dollars to the state budget. Prop. 25 would establish a simple majority for passing the state budget, rather than the two-thirds vote California currently has.

Andrew Carrillo gave up his Saturday to walk precincts. He’s a teacher at 32nd Street USC Magnet. He says he hasn’t canvassed since 1982 but these propositions pushed him to get the word out.

“They are important to me because our government is dysfunctional. This is a small small step, but an important step to make it a little more functional.”

Many of the students and teachers walking on Saturday had one agenda: get more money for education. It’s no secret California’s economy is in disarray. And a budget in the red affects schools.

Michael Husinger was one student self-motivated to walk on Saturday. He’s a 15 year old from Crenshaw High School. He says Props 24 and 25 give him the chance for a better education.

“Well one, it improves the schools, so better education for me, and also for my family like my little brother and sisters and everything.”

Husinger is in the Social Justice and Law Academy so politics is a big draw for him. He and his classmates were part of a larger group of over 200,000 people were working over the weekend to get out the vote. Teacher and activist David Rapkin believes there is power in numbers.

“The differences that usually keep us separate need to be broken down. There is nothing like students and teachers walking together to symbolize that and create a reality.”

If Props 24 and 25 pass, the state is bound to direct more money to schools.

VIDEO BLOG: Empty chairs for empty teaching positions

To protest the 6,300 pink slips sent out to LAUSD teachers on March 15th, UTLA members set out empty chairs in front of the district headquarters. Each chair displayed a pink slip representing a teacher or student services professional.

Provided by Santee Education Complex teacher and social activist Jose Lara (below)





LAUSD Board of Education approves layoffs for 4,700 employees

The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted Tuesday afternoon to approve sending thousands of layoff notices to teachers and staff. Board members blamed cutbacks in state spending for the layoffs, which they said were unfortunate but necessary. Even though 4,700 employees will receive layoff notices, some workers may be able to keep their jobs. LAUSD is required to notify employees that may lose their job, and in the past the district has been able to rescind notices after additional funds become available. Ariel Edwards-Levy filed this report for Annenberg Radio News, click below to listen.