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Vote at School in L.A. Stirs Up Debate Over Balance of Power

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A Los Angeles elementary school's decision to give teachers' votes more weight than those of parents in an election to determine the school calendar has touched off a local debate over how parents and school staff members should share power.

Parents of students who attend Euclid Avenue Elementary School were expected to meet this week with members of the school's leadership council to try to resolve the dispute.

The flap erupted after a group of parents discovered that the council had awarded teachers 6.32 votes for every one parent vote.

The final count in the election showed that the 386 parents who voted to move to a traditional school calendar were overruled by 65 staff members who wanted to maintain the year-round school, according to local news accounts.

The uproar over the election comes as the massive, 630,000-student Los Angeles school district completes the first stages of a three-year restructuring effort aimed at delegating more responsibility to individual schools.

Making Decisions

Some observers said the flare-up at Euclid illustrates the difficulties that arise when groups unaccustomed to making decisions are given significant authority but little guidance.

The school "got this decisionmaking authority without any support or training,'' said Mary Chambers, the vice president of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, a coalition of education, business, and community groups that devised the district's restructuring plan.

"This is not a school that has stepped forward and made a commitment to work together in a collaborative way,'' she said.

Teachers and union leaders, however, have defended the council's right to make decisions in whatever way it chooses. They also pointed out that the five parents on the school's 14-member council had agreed to the voting process.

The leadership council distributed ballots to faculty and community members in March, before the district had released guidelines giving councils the authority to set their calendars without other input.

The district only stipulated that members reach a consensus before altering the schedule.

'A Little More Fair'

The council decided, however, to consider the votes in its decision but only after creating a ratio system "to make it a little more fair,'' said Emilia Tinoco, a teacher and union representative at the school.

Because the number of parents who cast ballots far outnumbered the faculty members who voted, the system was set up to distribute voting power evenly, Ms. Tinoco said.

Several parents were furious with the results, arguing that the council had overstepped its authority.

Currently, all Los Angeles schools have some form of local decisionmaking in place.

Euclid has shared decisionmaking powers, which means its council--whose members are elected and whose principal is appointed--has limited authority to make decisions about its school's calendar, among other issues.

The district's 34 LEARN schools have the greatest degree of autonomy. At those sites, the principal is the lead decisionmaker in the school, though he or she is also expected to work collaboratively with all school constituencies. (See Education Week, June 9, 1993.)

Out of Proportion?

Since undertaking the districtwide decentralization plan, parents, teachers, and administrators have clashed over how individual schools should be governed.

Earlier this year, a group of parents appealed to the district to give them more than 50 percent representation on each school's decisionmaking body, but school officials rejected the plan, said Bill Rivera, a spokesman for Superintendent Sid Thompson.

Some parents at the elementary school have said they still feel their opinions are not valued.

One parent said the dispute was simply over the council's "failure to inform parents about what the [voting] process was.''

Union leaders and other observers claimed that the situation had been blown out of proportion.

"When you have local autonomy, you have representatives making decisions,'' said Helen Bernstein, the president of United Teachers-Los Angeles.

"That's what elected representative democracy is all about,'' she said. "That's the point parents are sort of missing.''

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