Families & the Community Opinion

Union Election in Los Angeles: Meet Candidate Gaffney

By Anthony Cody — February 26, 2014 10 min read
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Coleen Bondy, Los Angeles teacher, has prepared special coverage of the upcoming teacher’s union election in her city. Here is her report:

United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union for Los Angeles Unified School District, is holding elections for all of its major offices this spring. Ballots will be mailed out to the membership beginning Feb. 25.

Effective leadership has never been so critical to UTLA members as it is now. Teachers have endured years of brutal budget cuts, including furlough days, pink slips, increased class sizes, and have gone seven years without a raise.

In addition, LAUSD has implemented programs such as Breakfast in the Classroom that are wildly unpopular with teachers, who already deal with cleanliness issues in the classroom because of a lack of adequate custodial staffing.

LAUSD’s school board appears to be charging full steam ahead on a plan to equip every student with an iPad, at a total cost of about $1 billion. It is planning to use bond money that voters specifically earmarked for construction of new facilities and maintenance of old ones.

Perhaps most important of all, many LAUSD teachers perceive that the district has been hijacked by employees and school board members who are bent upon implementing corporate-style reforms in the district, without the approval of parents or teachers.

With so much at stake this year, we asked the candidates running for president of UTLA to answer the same 10 questions. The questions were emailed to all of the candidates in January. More information can also be found here.

We kicked off the series Friday with Gregg Solkovits, and over the weekend featured Kevin Mottus and Alex Caputo-Pearl.

Today, we meet Bill Gaffney, science teacher at Fulton College Prep (LAUSD).

1. How did you come to be a teacher in Los Angeles?

My education career spans nearly three decades. I actually started my career in St. Croix, at a Country Day School where I founded the school’s first science department.

But after returning to the States, I wanted to play a part in a larger urban school district, serving a higher-need student population, which is why I started teaching in Los Angeles.

2. Why are you running for President of UTLA?

I first decided to get actively involved within the union seven years ago, when I went unpaid for 3 months due to a glitch in the LAUSD payroll system. My school site chapter chair was indifferent, so I had to solve the payroll problem alone. It took more than a year. After that experience, I ran for the chapter chair position at my school and won.

Since then, I have been a results-focused, active chapter chair and member of the UTLA House of Representatives. In these roles, I have witnessed firsthand the failure of our leadership to meet our needs. Worse, they have no plan of action for negotiating a raise or helping teachers develop professionally. Instead, dissension and self-interest divide our current officers, and finger-pointing has weakened our union’s ability to solve problems.

Our union is at a crossroads, and I cannot sit back and watch our influence deteriorate. My colleagues know me as a relentless “bridge-builder,” and I believe it is only through collaborative efforts by all stakeholders that the union can finally produce real solutions. As president of United Teachers Los Angeles, I believe my results-oriented approach will best serve the more than 600,000 students and 30,000 teachers.

3. Have you been involved with any Gates-funded education reform projects such as Educators 4 Excellence? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I’ve never been involved with E4E. But I’m actually running for UTLA president in part thanks to the policy research I’d been doing as part of Future Is Now’s Teacher Action Network Fellowship. (I understand Future Is Now has received some money from the Gates Foundation.)

I joined Future Is Now’s fellowship after years of serving in the union, wondering how we could make our union more effective at advocating for its teachers. The fellowship has supported me digging deeper into how we can make UTLA better. Through it I’ve studied successful organizing techniques used by groups like the Obama campaign, as well as models like interest-based bargaining.

At first, this research made me sad about how ineffective UTLA leadership has been. Then, it made me angry that this leadership has floundered for so long and lost so much ground for the more than 30,000 dues-paying teachers who have entrusted their careers to the union.

Finally, it made me realize that if the same guys were going to run again, then someone new had to step up and try to help put this union on the right track. So here I am, and I’m hoping others will step up with me.

4. How will the recent iPad purchase affect LAUSD over the next few years?

The district’s recent technology rollout and implementation process has been a mess. However, I do support the long-term goals of the initiative: to develop the capacity of all educators and schools to utilize blended-learning practices to effectively differentiate student learning within the 21st century.

As president, I would work to make sure the debacle still benefits teachers and students. Technology tools such as iPads (as well as many other devices and platforms) are essential to creating the kind of differentiated learning that can innovatively improve achievement for our students.

I would also fight for an issue that has been overlooked in the great iPad debate: we must invest heavily to develop the technological infrastructure of all our schools, if we are to meet these 21st century demands.

Sadly, our current UTLA leadership fails to engage on these critical topics, instead making baseless arguments that the district is seeking to “replace teachers with machines” or that bond money can be used to reduce class sizes. These false claims show just how severely out-of-touch the officers are with real policy and the needs of the majority of teachers who embrace technology to scale their impact.

5. What do you think of recent changes in the way teachers are evaluated in LAUSD?

Like most teachers in UTLA, I support an approach to teacher evaluation that assesses multiple measures of a teacher’s practice. In addition to observations of practice, parent/student surveys, and LAUSD’s still- undefined category, “Contributions to School Community,” I also support incorporating a hybrid collection of student outcomes that includes standardized test scores--with strict limits.

The current Educator Growth and Development system is a step in the right direction, but it grossly lacks the structures (such as Peer Observers) needed to support educators in their professional development.

At the time, UTLA leaders scraped together an alternative plan with minimal input from members. Their incompetence led to the mediocre system we have now, in which the district was allowed to implement a misguided, top-down policy of weighing test scores at up to 30% of a teachers’ evaluation score.

6. Are you in favor of implementing the Common Core State Standards in LAUSD? If so, why? If not, why not?

Yes, I support CCSS. It is essential that as a nation we can hold stakeholders thoughtfully accountable for ensuring that all students are equipped with 21st century skills no matter where they live.

Furthermore, I support the AFT’s position that we should extend the pilot period for implementing the CCSS beyond just this year to one or two more years before using the standards in penalizing struggling schools and making high stakes personnel decisions. We can’t just look at a year of test scores, we need to really observe practice to get a picture of how the new standards are working.

My primary concern as president, though, is to make sure teachers have the support they need for this ambitious roll-out. UTLA is a professional union and it is our responsibility to work with the district to support all teachers during the transition process. We need to tap into our greatest resource, the accomplished educators in the LAUSD, and immediately work to build out a dynamic and evolving database of teacher-generated lessons and resources to effectively roll out the CCSS.

7. What do you believe are the three most important issues facing teachers/UTLA today? How would you address those issues as president?

1. We need a raise. It’s been more than six years! Meanwhile, we’ve lost 8% in furlough pay and 12% in cost of living increases. With the passing of Prop 30 and new monies coming into the district, I plan to phase in a 20% pay raise over 4 years while also reducing class sizes and restoring crucial services.

2. Transparency and accessibility. A union only works when rank-and-file members are engaged. Let’s make it easy for them to weigh in on important issues and track how dues are spent. I will also develop a leadership performance framework and utilize an interest-based bargaining model to hold elected officers accountable.

3. Career pathways and professional opportunities. I will negotiate additional stipends for members who take on additional roles and/or initiatives that lead to new career lattices that seek to develop teaching and learning.

8. What has surprised you since you began running for this office?

It was ineffective leadership that led me to run in the first place. But as the election has heated up, I’ve been appalled at the political in-fighting and devotion to selfish interests. It effectively filibusters meaningful input from rank-and-file members and takes hostage the productive use of their dues.

And I’m not alone in feeling this way. During this campaign, I’ve spoken with countless mid-career teachers (who will make up the majority of our membership within the near future), and they share my despair about the current leadership’s lack of solutions and the dysfunctional governance.

Many of these mid-career teachers became more active within our House of Representatives during our last election. My hope is that a solutions- oriented leadership, with open and accountable governance, will encourage these teachers to invest further in improving our union and our profession, instead of throwing in the towel, as so many of their peers do. I hope to be that leader.

9. How do you feel about Breakfast in the Classroom at the elementary, middle and high school levels?

I support the Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) initiative and other projects that seek to enhance our ability to provide more funding and wraparound services to schools and urban communities. (Here are important facts toconsider around the BIC initiative before one is quick to dismiss its impact.)

However, I do not support the manner in which it was implemented. As so many districts have done with so many noble educational policies, LAUSD failed to consult the teachers about a reform that would directly affect the integrity of their work. It’s sad, because I believe a majority of educators would support BIC, but the top-down approach of the district forces us to push back.

I also blame the current leadership of UTLA for failing to collaborate with our brothers and sisters at the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), who support BIC. Rather than embracing an opportunity for collaboration, our current leaders shunned a key stakeholder in education. Did they forget that most of the children of SEIU members attend LAUSD Schools?

As president, I will not only work to rebuild this relationship, but will also look to develop joint initiatives that augment the work of teachers by ensuring students are supported both in and out of the classroom.

10. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’d like to leave you with some questions to consider:

  • What has UTLA accomplished in the last year? The last decade?

  • Did you know that our Union has spent over $84,000,000 in fees and dues to our Sacramento and Washington affiliates? Has that won us any tangible victories?

    We are a union of professionals, but under current leadership, teachers have become objects of reform rather than architects of it. It is time for us to reclaim our role as the educators entrusted to deliver the promise of public education for the students of Los Angeles.

    I will work to re-establish our influence.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.