Supporters of L.A. Mayor Gain Majority on School Board
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is set to revive a stalled effort to intervene in the Los Angeles school system after two candidates that he backed for the school board won in a runoff.
The election of Tamar Galatzan, a city prosecutor, and Richard Vladovic, a retired school district administrator, to the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District on May 15 gives the mayor four allies on the seven-member panel. All four have said they support Mr. Villaraigosa’s bid to run at least some of the city’s lowest-performing schools.
A campaign committee aligned with the mayor raised and spent roughly $3 million to back Ms. Galatzan and Mr. Vladovic in an election that drew fewer than 7 percent of registered voters in the city of Los Angeles.
Mr. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, set his sights on electing members who would support his plan to win partial authority over the 708,000-student system after district officials challenged a state law passed last year to grant him some control. A superior court judge and a panel of state appellate judges have ruled that the law violates the California Constitution, so far keeping it from being implemented.
Though he has sparred bitterly with some current school board members over who should be responsible for running the schools, Mr. Villaraigosa said he wants to cooperate with the district on raising student achievement and driving down the city’s high dropout rates.
“We’ve been to the legislature. We’ve been to the courts. We’ve been to the ballot box,” the mayor said at a party as the election results were still being counted. “Now it’s time to join hands and forge a genuine partnership.”
A big test of who will lead the charge to improve achievement in the nation’s second-largest district—especially in high schools whose graduation rates are often no better than 50 percent—may turn on events at Locke High School, a troubled campus in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
Teachers at the 2,800-student high school, one of the city’s poorest and lowest-performing schools, are seeking to leave the Los Angeles district and join Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator.
A majority of the members of the school’s tenured faculty signed a petition circulated by the charter organization to convert the large campus into 10 Green Dot campuses by the fall of 2008. California’s charter school law requires that a petition seeking to convert a traditional school to a charter contain the signatures of at least 50 percent of the tenured teachers in the petitioning school.
However, the signature-gathering process is being disputed by United Teachers Los Angeles. Frank Wells, the principal at Locke High, has been relieved of his duties by district officials, who are investigating whether he improperly allowed teachers to use class time to collect signatures.
Steve Barr, the founder and chief executive officer of Green Dot, said the Locke faculty had invoked the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to “restructure” if they have failed for five years or more to meet student-achievement targets. One option under the law is to shut down failing schools and reopen them as charters, which are public but largely independent schools.
“There is such a disconnect between downtown bureaucracy and what is going on at these school sites,” Mr. Barr said. Under state law, the school board must verify the signatures and vote on the charter petition within the next two months, he added.
The move—which came a month after negotiations on a joint reform effort for Locke High between Green Dot and Los Angeles Unified Superintendent David L. Brewer III broke off—prompted district leaders and officials of the 48,000-member UTLA to meet with Locke teachers, answer questions, and present possible alternatives to becoming a Green Dot charter.
“It is very clear to us now that some of the staff didn’t understand what they were signing,” said Kathi Littmann, the executive director of the district’s new division of innovation. At least some of the confusion came from a few teachers who didn’t realize that they would have to reapply with Green Dot for their jobs, Ms. Littmann said.
Both she and A.J. Duffy, the president of UTLA, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, said some Locke teachers have since asked that their signatures be removed from the charter petition.
“Given all the confusion over this,” Mr. Duffy said, “I don’t think the school board is ultimately going to look upon this as a process that they have to honor.”
Among the other options for Locke, Ms. Littmann said, would be to become a “pilot school” with autonomy in hiring, spending, curriculum, and scheduling. The district, the teachers’ union, and community groups are creating 10 such schools in the city’s Belmont attendance area; two of them are scheduled to open in the fall.
“We needed to give them credible information so that they can make a choice,” Ms. Littmann said. “It’s not easy in this short time frame and in such an emotional environment.”
Mr. Barr said that any attempt by the district to fight the charter petition would be wrong and would prompt him to go to other struggling high schools in the city.
“I’ve got about eight other schools teed up that want to do the same thing,” he said.
Still, Mr. Duffy, a fierce opponent of charter schools and an adversary of Mr. Barr’s, said the dramatic turn of events at Locke should serve as a wake-up call to district administrators. For his part, Mayor Villaraigosa has repeatedly expressed his support for charter schools.
“In a very real-world way,” he said, “it’s good that this happened because now the district should finally get that attention must be paid to these schools that have been totally ignored.”