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Report Raps Shared-Decisionmaking Effort in Los Angeles

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A report critical of the first year of shared decisionmaking in Los Angeles schools has stoked longstanding hostilities between the teachers' union and district officials, with the union questioning whether the report's purpose was to undermine reform.

Prepared by the Independent Analysis Unit, which reports directly to the school board, the study highlights what the authors see as problems with the decisionmaking process and emphasizes the need to strengthen the role of principals.

"Its main message is that the confusion in 1989-90 about a principal's proper role under shared decisionmaking may have impeded the reform's initial success," states an abstract appended to the report.

Also impeding the process, according to the authors, are a lack of training for school leadership-council members, a hostile collective-bargaining environment, and a shortage of money.

Throughout, the report returns to the strife its authors say they witnessed or were told about in the course of interviewing approximately 50 people at 10 randomly selected schools between February and June.

The authors found that the councils spent considerable time discussing4equipment and discipline, issues that engendered disagreement between teachers and principals. Little time was devoted to staff development, they say, leading them to suggest returning the responsibility for such activity to principals, who would seek input from teachers.

The report drew a sharp response from union officials, who disputed its conclusions and said they had understood it would remain confidential.

"Here we are trying to get people to believe we are working cooperatively together, and it looks as though we're trying to sell them a bill of goods," Helen Bernstein, president of the United Teachers-Los Angeles, said last week.

Ms. Bernstein said she had already encountered high-ranking state and union officials who suggested that the experience in Los Angeles could sour chances for school-restructuring elsewhere.

At worst, the union president said, release of the report "was an unconscious attempt to sabotage the process. At best, I work with people who have no sense of what it takes to make revolutions."

In July 1989, following a bitter strike, the union and the Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on the first phase of the school-restructuring plan. Provisions of the teach8ers' contract called for setting up leadership councils at each school, made up of teachers, the principal, and parents, among others. The councils were to share decisions about the budget, discipline, equipment, scheduling, and staff development.

Subsequently, leadership councils in schools wishing to participate in the next phase of restructuring--school-based management--were to submit a formal plan to the districtwide School-Based Management Central Committee. Twenty-seven schools were given the go-ahead, pending waivers of some state requirements. The second phase was to begin this fall, although none of the school-based-management plans is yet in effect. (See Education Week, April 11, 1990.)

None of the 27 schools was selected for the study of shared decisionmaking. The study began in January, before they had been chosen for school-based-management.

From the moment the school board raised the prospect of conducting such an assessment, the teachers' union and some members of the central committee expressed unease.

Marion Hogue, a parent member of the committee, said she initially objected because she felt no meaningful generalizations could be based on 10 schools. Moreover, she said, she felt from the outset that the report--characterized as a baseline study--would be flawed because shared decisionmaking was already taking place.

Ms. Bernstein said that once she realized she could not dissuade the school board from going ahead with the report, she asked the Independent Analysis Unit to select 10 other schools, because she knew that at least half of those chosen had been rendered dysfunctional as a result of antagonistic relationships. Her request was turned down.

At the heart of the dispute is the release of the report to the public. Both Ms. Bernstein and Ms. Hogue said they were told the report would remain confidential. Ms. Bernstein said she feared a report based on less than a year's data might undermine restructuring.

The report itself states that after only a "single year of shared deci4sionmaking, it is premature to determine whether the innovation has been successful."

The document was released Nov. 5 after the u.t.l.a. requested a copy, according to the president of the school board, Jackie Goldberg. Once the union requested a copy, the board had no choice but to release it publicly, Ms. Goldberg explained. "I think that is our fault. We should have let them know [about the public release] when they requested it."

Some view the conflict as a result of years of distrust that was just beginning to fade.

Trust "has been the fragile element in Los Angeles from the start," said Mark Slavkin a school-board member. "One of the things that was unfortunate about the report [was] it pushed a button with a lot of people relative to the trust issue."

Although some board members lamented the way the report was handled, they disputed the claim that it would undermine restructuring. "I don't think anything will stop this movement now," said Ms. Goldberg.

But Rita Walters, another board member, said the report confirmed her worry that the district had moved too quickly into restructuring. "If it is to survive in a substantive way ... then all sides have to lower their expectations, back up a bit, and see that people are really conversant with the goals and objectives and what roles they are to play," she said.

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