Published Online:

Uneasy Alliance Marks Launch of L.A. Plan

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Los Angeles--One year after weathering a divisive teachers' strike, the Los Angeles Unified School District has embarked upon a new program of "bottom up" management that is drawing teachers, parents, and administrators into an uneasy alliance to improve the schools.

Despite attempts to bury past animosities, however, many here say the scars left from that 11-day strike may hamper efforts to give schools wide decisionmaking authority.

Restructuring in the nation's second-largest school district must also compete for attention with a host of pressing problems, including severe overcrowding, a projected $180-million budget deficit, and the special needs of many of the system's 610,000 students, about one-third of whom speak limited or no English.

"I don't think this district is ready for school-based management, but it probably never will be ready," said Marion Hogue, a parent who serves on the districtwide School-Based Management Central Committee. "I'm willing to say we have to go for it."

Such attitudes, observers here say, may represent the troubled school system's best hope for substantive improvement.

The district is now "at a tilt point between the agony of the past and some incredibly interesting changes in the future," said Guilbert C. Hentschke, dean of the school of education at the University of Southern California. "My sense is you're going to see, in the next year or two, tremendously positive changes in this district."

Although school-based-management plans in other cities have grown out of strong labor-management cooperation, a good deal of rancor still exists here on both sides of that equation.

Wayne Johnson, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, continues to hammer away at the school district, labeling administrators "fat cats" and disputing the district's claims of a deficit.

Mr. Johnson calls the teachers' contract--which mandated shared decisionmaking in all schools and the opportunity for some schools to move into school-based management--"a peace treaty" that "evolved out of a war."

"Somewhere out there, there's this feeling that to have this work, you've got to trust and love each other. That's hogwash," said Mr. Johnson, whose term of office expires July 1.

"Power sharing is about power," he added. "Teachers and administrators can hate each other and still share power."

While teachers and administrators in 825 schools and special centers are figuring out how to do just that, hundreds of thousands of parents and community leaders also must determine their roles in the process.

Overseeing the decentralization effort are the divided Los Angeles Board of Education, the appointed School-Based Management Central Committee, and an administrative office of school-based management.

As a result of the complex mix, the issue of which group will control the venture into school-based management is never far from discussion here.

Some parents and community leaders view with deep suspicion the fact that decentralization has been mandated by the teachers' contract. They complain that parents have not been given an equal say at the local school sites.

"Unless school-based management guarantees equal parent votes, it will not work," Bea Stotzer, a member of the Kester Avenue Elementary School p.t.a., recently told the board of education. "Our local council is currently being used to promote teacher-union views."

Last summer and fall, all district schools began a program of shared decisionmaking with the election of school-leadership councils that decide a limited number of management questions. The councils range in size from 6 to 16 members, with half of the membership made up of teachers and other certified employees and the rest composed of the principal, parents and community members, other school employees, and (in secondary schools) students.

This month, up to 70 schools will be chosen to launch a more ambitious program of school-based management. Schools that want to par4ticipate must submit a formal request by April 20, indicating the approval of two-thirds of their faculty members and the principal.

Parents and community members are then to be involved in drafting the school's final plan. They also must approve the plan in a formal vote before it is submitted to meet the June 15 deadline.

The Central Council--a 24-member panel that includes 12 members appointed by the teachers' union, five appointed by the district superintendent, and one appointed by each of the seven members of the board of education--will review the plans and recommend up to 70 to the board of education. Schools will be notified of their selection by Aug. 23 and will begin school-based management in the fall.

The city's leap from strike to shared decisionmaking represents--because of the Los Angeles Unified School District's size--the largest-scale attempt in the nation to give local schools more control. Only the New York City school system is larger.

But the contract outlined only five specific areas that school-leadership councils could address: staff-development programs; student-discipline guidelines and codes of conduct; the schedule of school activities and events and certain special schedules; guidelines for the use of school equipment; and the expenditure of some categories of the school budget.

In contrast, the guidelines adopted March 26 for this spring's move into school-based management give schools wide latitude to design their own plans. The guidelines permit these schools to seek waivers from union, district, state, and federal policy to accomplish their goals. (See Education Week, April 4, 1990.)

Schools chosen for school-based management also may elect to change the makeup and voting authority of members of their councils. In schools not chosen for school-based management, the process of shared decisionmaking will continue.

The limited scope of that process was specifically designed to give the diverse members of the councils time to get used to working with one another and reaching decisions by consensus, officials said.

Given the atmosphere of tension and mistrust with which many schools began holding meetings, they add, the process has worked remarkably smoothly.

"The key element is that it is in every school," said Superintendent Leonard M. Britton. "I'm astounded at how well it has come about. Out of 800 centers, the sore spots are in a handful of schools."

Because many councils have parent or community members who are not fluent in English, some meetings are conducted in Spanish. Other councils arrange for translators to help non-English-speaking members. And in some schools, principals and teachers have met with parents before scheduled meetings to go over the agenda and explain unfamiliar concepts.

Some critics, pointing to the inclusion of rules for use of the copy machine in the union contract, have dismissed shared decisionmaking as a relatively trivial enterprise. But Mr. Johnson said people who are not teachers cannot begin to appreciate the importance of such equipment as the copy machine in a school.

"It was a symbol of everything that was wrong," he said. "If you tell a 50-year-old, college-educated person with a master's degree 'You can't use it,' ... I'd mention the copy machine at meetings and a thunder would go through the room."

Councils throughout the district have revamped discipline policies, purchased copy machines, scheduled school activities, and rewritten earthquake-preparedness plans.

The leadership council at 112th Street Elementary School decided to have business cards made up for council members to help them in contacts with the business community. One school surveyed the parents of its students and learned that they wanted their children to wear uniforms to school.

But some leadership councils have not broken down the barriers between the diverse members of the group. Some of the problems are due to personality conflicts, council members said, while some have been caused by clashes between the district and the UTLA over the precise meaning of the contract language.

The greatest conflict has emerged over scheduling, which the district has interpreted narrowly to mean setting the school calendar. The union advocates a broader reading that would give councils the ability to decide whether--not just when--they want to participate in a particular activity.

Both sides agree that the matter, now being negotiated, is likely to be resolved only through arbitration.

Helen Bernstein, the UTLA's secondary vice president and co-chairman of the Central Council, said such conflicts illustrate that "the district expects to do things business as usual."

"If the district really cared," added Ms. Bernstein, who is a candidate to succeed Mr. Johnson as union president, "someone would say, 'Cut the bullshit."'

Union and district officials also have argued over the precise meaning of "school equipment" and whether that includes telephones and a school's public-address system.

In some schools where the leadership council's plans affect such items, progress has ground to a halt, council members said.

Valentina Varnas, who teaches at an elementary school in East Los Angeles, said she was disappointed that her school council's discussion of a detailed lunchtime discipline program was limited by the principal because it involved changing some employees' schedules.

"We spend a lot of time dancing around semantics," Ms. Varnas said. "There are a lot of taboos and very little is accomplished."

Ms. Varnas and several other council members complained that the training provided by the Central Council is inadequate and does not answer the detailed questions that arise during meetings.

The district is now into its second cycle of training for shared decisionmaking. Representatives of all the leadership councils are being exposed in these sessions to techniques for fostering effective communication, achieving consensus, holding productive meetings, and managing conflict.

Council members who attend the training sessions are expected to share what they have learned with fellow council members.

Simply exposing people on the 825 councils to the training material is a "monumental job," noted Al Fox, a teacher who has been released from his classroom duties to provide training.

"Currently, it's a one-size-fits-all training," said Mr. Fox, who is also a member of the Central Council. "We can't meet the needs doing that."

What council members want most, said Ruth Valadez, an elementary special-education teacher who attended a recent training session, is clarification of the teachers' contract.

The contract, for example, gives school-leadership councils the authority to decide how some state-lottery funds will be spent. At her school, Ms. Valadez said, the principal ordered supplies with the funds without the council's approval.

"Initially, I was so excited about this," Ms. Valadez said of shared decisionmaking. "But because of the dynamics of the group and the difficulty we're having with the contract, I feel like, 'What is the point?"'

In January, district officials announced that most of the money allocated directly to the schools, including the lottery funds, would be frozen. The announcement was a blow to schools that had just spent months deciding how to use the money and researching which products to buy.

Eventually, the accounts were unfrozen, but the board of education reduced the amount of lottery money schools received.

The issue came up last month after the district broadcast a live teleconference to explain the guidelines for school-based management--and present a unified message on the program's importance.

During a press conference afterward, Mr. Johnson accused the district of "jerking money back out of the schools," saying that the decision on the lottery money "raises some questions in our mind as to the real commitment" of the district toward restructuring.

But Jackie Goldberg, president of the board of education, quickly responded that the district was facing a $91-million shortfall, "in addition to what we'd already anticipated because of our salary negotiations last year."

"It was not an easy decision," she said.

People here who are accustomed to watching board members involve themselves in every aspect of the district's operations question whether the board has adopted the "hands off" philosophy that is driving school-based management elsewhere.

The board spent three lengthy sessions in March combing through the proposed guidelines for participating in school-based management, which were drawn up by the Central Council.

Although board members discussed accountability mechanisms and how to ensure that the needs of the multicultural student body are met, they also quibbled at length over the proposal's grammar.

The board's final vote, however, was 7 to 0 in favor of the guidelines. Leticia Quezada, a member of the board, called the vote "very important."

"We wouldn't be here if we weren't strongly behind it," she said of school-based management. "It's much too complex and sensitive. Each one of us was willing to set aside something we wanted to see in those guidelines in good faith."

But the board's final deliberations sent an unwelcome message to some observers that schools that begin site-based management will be judged more harshly than others.

"I'm absolutely amazed at people's unwillingness to let go of something that isn't working," Mr. Fox noted. "The message is, 'Let's stay with what's comfortable, even if it's not working."'

Four of the board's seven members are widely considered to favor the teachers' union. Among the remaining members, Ms. Quezada and Rita Walters have expressed the most dissatisfaction with the move into school-based management, calling for greater parental representation on the school councils and voicing concerns about meeting the needs of minority students.

"The problem is, the union tends to get consumed with its own issues to the detriment of children," Ms. Walters said. "They touted this as a power movement."


The question of how to handle language about the district's diversity proved controversial during the drafting of the guidelines.

Los Angeles students, 86 percent of whom are members of minority groups, speak more than 80 languages. Hispanics make up 64 percent of the total enrollment.

Some members of the Central Committee wanted to see a separate section included in the guidelines requiring schools to specify how they are meeting the needs of "multiethnic and multilingual students" and improving the school community's awareness of such diversity. But the committee could not reach a consensus on the item and defeated it in a vote.

The final guidelines require schools to describe their needs "within a multiethnic, multilinguistic setting," but do not include a separate section on cultural diversity.

"This is a classic example of wanting the same things, but having huge philosophical differences over how to get there." Ms. Quezada said.

But even the limited language in the guidelines drew a protest from the Los Angeles 10th District p.t.a. In a letter to board members, the p.t.a.'s representatives said the language "indicates a lack of trust that parents, teachers, and administrators at the local schools will recognize these needs of their children."

"Such language restricts the efforts of a local school community to participate fully in appropriate school-based management, which should promote a variety of educational reforms essential for the total child," the letter stated.

Ms. Quezada said she "could not believe" the group would object to the final guidelines. "You bet I can tell schools they have to address the needs of [minority] students," she said. "That is the business of the day in this district."

The dispute over the guidelines heightened the fears many Hispanic parents have expressed over the district's decentralization plan. At the heart of their concern, said Horacio Quinones, a community activist, lies the sentiment that the predominantly white teaching force cannot be trusted because it has largely failed to educate Hispanic children.

"There has been so little success, and so much negligence," Mr. Quinones said, "that there needs to be restructuring, but not the kind they're doing."

Parents who already felt excluded because the teachers' union and the district negotiated the terms of their involvement at the school level staged a protest outside the site of the recent teleconference to draw attention to their demands.

The language barrier between many parents who wish to participate and teachers and administrators who do not speak their language also has contributed to some parents' distrust of the process. The protesters, members of the District Hispanic Parents Coalition, complained about a lack of information in Spanish.

Even parents who are fully participating as members of leadership councils say they are unsure of what their roles should be.

"I tend to think that we just rubber stamp, because we don't know what's going on," said Evelina Alarcon, a parent member of the City Terrace Elementary School council. "Things are progressing, but I'm not sure it's with real parent understanding."

Other parents said the issues permitted for discussion under shared decisionmaking are not what parents are most concerned about.

But Raquel Olivares, who received a 6th-grade education in Mexico before coming to the United States, said through an interpreter in an interview that she has had a voice in meaningful accomplishments at her school.

The council bought a new copy machine to replace an old-fashioned ditto machine, which Ms. Olivares said was important because it is used to provide children with materials for homework.

District officials acknowledge that parents' roles are murky and that the district must reach out to involve everyone.

"By no stretch of the imagination have we done a good job of reaching them," said Andrew Cazares, the district's superintendent for school-based management.

Involving parents in the schools is more complicated here than in other cities, suggested Priscilla Wohlstetter, an assistant professor of politics and policy at the University of Southern California's school of education.

Ms. Wohlstetter is conducting a study of school-based management in Los Angeles; Dade County, Fla.; and Chicago. In Chicago, parents have been given a great deal of authority over individual schools, she noted, while Dade County did not involve parents in its initial plans for school-based management.

In comparison with Chicago's relatively stable population, Ms. Wohlstetter said, parents in Los Angeles are "unorganized and reactive."

"What we find in Los Angeles is that immigrants move to one area of the city where it most resembles their home country, but that once they get their bearings and some money, they quickly move out," she said. "It makes it difficult."

When schools have prepared their final plans for school-based management, parents will be asked to vote to approve the plan. The district will mail absentee ballots to parents who cannot get to a school to vote, along with copies of the proposal translated into about five languages.

Ms. Quezada, who had insisted that parents be given a formal vote on the plans, said she did so because "nobody is really looking out for the parents."

But parents are by no means the only ones who have been put in tenuous positions by the move to greater decisionmaking at the school level.

Some principals have been reluctant to give up their authority, union officials said, and have stalled in giving leadership councils copies of the school budget.

Several principals, however, said they view shared decisionmaking as an extention of and improvement on their previous method of managing the school.

The past year has been a hard one for principals for a variety of reasons, noted Eli Brent, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, a 2,000-member professional organization. Principals who were forced to dock teachers' pay during the strike found themselves a few months later working with many of the same teachers on school-leadership councils, he said.

"The climate is such that we're trying to decide whether to remain management or go to supervisory status," Mr. Brent said. Supervisory status, which would be granted to administrators by the state, would allow them to negotiate a contract with the school district.

In a recent straw vote taken by the administrators' group to determine members' attitudes, Mr. Brent said, 92 percent voted in favor of seeking supervisory status.

Pat Martinez, principal of Magnolia Elementary School, said shared decisionmaking did not extend the areas that advisory groups at the school already were addressing. It did, however, provide a mechanism for the school to "get issues into the hands of people who could come back with some proposals," she said.

"We get a lot done meeting for one hour every two weeks," Ms. Martinez added. "This is not just advisory, and that makes a big difference."

Mr. Britton said the district's central staff is working to support principals, who are now "at the focal point" of the decentralization efforts.

In an attempt to make principals feel a part of the process, the district sent five administrators to Dade County, Fla., to talk to educators there about their experiences with school-based management.

Mr. Britton, who is personally associated with school-based management from his tenure as superintendent in Dade County, has one year left in his Los Angeles contract.

How principals will react to the more open-ended process of school-based management remains to be seen. Some administrators mention that principals in Dade County have the power to veto council decisions, although Dade officials say it is not used.

Mr. Cazares said he believes principals here also will want that option. "It's going to be 'no veto, no play' by the principals," he predicted.

Few people expect to see sweeping proposals come out of the first round of applications to participate in school-based management. Whether the maximum number of 70 schools will even be willing to try it is also an open question.

"I don't think we're going to have too many applications," Ms. Goldberg said. "Nobody is ready, and it's not just the parents. But if they are ready, they can go right ahead."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented