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Sad Reprise for the Schools

June 07, 2004

The increasingly ugly debate over the shape of the Los Angeles school system is looking uncomfortably like something we've seen before. The teachers union is trying to bully Supt. Roy Romer into doing away with middle management, and school board members -- most elected with union money -- have been scrambling to do its bidding. Shades of 1989, when the union-controlled board settled a teachers strike with a pay raise the district could not afford, leading to an economic slide and a teacher pay cut down the line.

The L.A. Unified School District board will vote Tuesday on whether to dismantle the 11 subdistricts that administer the district's 700 schools. Romer has warned that severe cuts could slow school construction and the pace of academic gains. He's proposing a compromise cutback to eight subdistricts, which would save $11 million while protecting instructional reforms. But that may not satisfy union leaders, whose "fat cat" rhetoric blames the mini-districts for everything from threatened benefit cuts to a shortage of classroom supplies. For weeks, United Teachers-Los Angeles has been pressing the issue, bombarding board members with phone calls and e-mails, and even trying to influence votes during school board meetings with hand signals and notes to their board cronies. That has led to a campaign by city business leaders, who worry that the union's tactics will run Romer out of town and the district back into the ground.

UTLA President John Perez says he's only doing his job. He was elected on a promise to hammer the school board for teachers' rights, squeaking past his more moderate opponent by a mere 98 votes out of 10,000 cast, in a union with 45,000 members. A victory here would shore up his political standing.

Romer should share the blame for the imbroglio. For weeks, he rebuffed board members' requests that he explain exactly what those legions of mini-district administrators do and how they contribute to student success. That left uncommitted board members vulnerable to union pressure.

Last week, the board made concessions to settle union concerns, agreeing to keep teachers' generous healthcare packages, rethink controversial teacher review programs and rescind budget reductions that took $50 per student from each school, and cut counselors, nurses and social workers. So it's not about money anymore, but politics and power. At stake is not just the mini-districts, but the public profile of a school board that had seemed united in moving the district forward but is now stalled and bitterly divided.

"No matter how this comes out," says board President Jose Huizar, "we're going to have to deal with damage to our image. We're going to have to rebuild our credibility with the parents and the business community." Standing up to the union and approving Romer's plan would go a long way toward doing that.

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