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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Union Nudges L.A. School Board Toward Power Sharing

June 13, 1989|HARRY BERNSTEIN

With the election of another pro-teacher candidate to the Los Angeles Board of Education last Tuesday, Los Angeles is positioned to help speed the nationwide drive toward workplace democracy in school districts and even the private sector.

The union-backed victory of Mark Slavkin will give liberals a majority on the board, which is now expected to work with teachers to implement a revolutionary new power-sharing system, the major goal in their highly successful recent strike.

Slavkin's election is crucial to the new system because the system's success will depend on mutual trust and cooperation, both of which have been sadly lacking in our schools for decades.

There have been some significant steps toward cooperation between teachers and administrators in several school systems. None of those districts, however, are nearly as large as Los Angeles' system, and their reforms have not been as extensive as those planned here.

Los Angeles schools could become a model for the nation if power sharing ends the debilitating strife in this, the nation's second-largest school district with a $3.5-billion annual budget.

And if ending adversarial relations helps students by improving the huge, authoritarian, bureaucracy-clogged Los Angeles schools, it could not only spread to other schools but also accelerate the trend toward industrial democracy that is being practiced increasingly in some large corporations and small companies.

Power sharing was the crucial element in the May 25 contract settlement that ended the teachers' bitter nine-day strike, although it was largely ignored in most media stories.

The teachers won a nice wage increase of 24% over three years that will give them better, but still modest, salaries. They won other contract provisions that will relieve them of some onerous non-teaching duties such as playground supervision.

However, their crowning victory was the contract provision giving teachers and parents, too, a major role in deciding how the schools will be managed.

Slavkin's election was due largely to the help he received from the United Teachers-Los Angeles, help offered because the union understands the wisdom of an old labor adage: Workers must be politically active to make sure that what they gain in their union contracts is not taken away overnight by politicians who oppose them.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a leading advocate of shared decision -making, correctly observed the other day that there is a real danger the new Los Angeles plan will not be revolutionary enough:

"Most of us, including teachers, are creatures of habit, and to make our schools function as they should, we must come up with imaginative ideas that will mean breaking many of the old habits we follow in education."

Helen Bernstein, a UTLA vice president who was a key figure in negotiating the power-sharing plan, says teachers, administrators, parents and even student representatives must use the plan to "truly restructure our school system," a point also emphasized by Wayne Johnson, UTLA president who led the teachers to victory.

To change and improve the way we educate children won't be easy. But teach ers, parents and administrators are getting an exciting opportunity to do just that.

By the end of this month, teachers in many, if not most, of the nearly 600 schools in Los Angeles will have elected their half of the representatives who will be on newly created, democratically run "school councils."

By next fall, after school administrators have picked their local council representatives, the councils will begin operating. The councils also will include parents and, at the secondary school level, students.

Initially, the local school councils will have limited functions, but they can begin to decentralize control of our massive schools system.

School principals will not be allowed to veto ideas approved by a majority of council members. However, at first they will be dealing only with such matters as the scheduling of school activities, student discipline and the best use of school equipment.

Normally, decisions about these and most other issues are made unilaterally by school principals or by top school administrators. Teachers are expected to obediently carry out those decisions like good, if big, children.

After the local school councils are created, the second, more important stage of the plan becomes operative. It calls for a 24-member, district-wide central council, with 12 members from the teachers union. The other 12 members will include administrators, parents and, in some cases, students.

The central council will write guidelines for operating the local school councils and presumably substantially expand the local councils' shared decision-making power.

The councils ought to be given authority to truly restructure the schools by doing anything from changing the curriculum and the way students are taught and graded to the way the school budget is spent.

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