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Teachers Union Takes Heat for Deal

Members chide leaders for backing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's school reform plan without consulting the UTLA governing body.

July 13, 2006|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Disgruntled members of the city's potent teachers union called a special meeting Wednesday night, demanding union officials explain and justify the deal they struck with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to reform the Los Angeles Unified School District.

About half of the union's 300-member House of Representatives attended the at-times raucous meeting at United Teachers Los Angeles' Koreatown headquarters. Late into the evening, dozens of teachers lined up to grill officials and take them to task. It remained uncertain whether the house would take a vote to support or oppose the deal.

The meeting culminated weeks of simmering discontent among some House members and rank-and-file teachers angered that they were left in the dark by a small cadre of union leaders who struck a quick compromise with Villaraigosa on his plans to overhaul the nation's second-largest public school system.

"This house is the policymaking body, and nothing should be done without coming to you first," said teacher Frances Copeland-Miles. "Where was the democratic process? Did they ask teachers anything?"

In an interview before the meeting, UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt sounded a repentant tone and acknowledged the rising levels of frustration.

"There is real concern about the way this went down. We've been hearing that from every corner, and it is legitimate," he said. "We've told people it is certainly not a process we ever want to replicate."

But Pechthalt defended the decision, saying that in the final, frantic days of negotiation that led to the compromise, Villaraigosa "made it very clear" he didn't want to wait for the union's house and board of directors to debate and vote.

"We weren't calling the shots on this," Pechthalt said. "It was clear that the mayor felt comfortable working with a small group of folks he had some history with. There was too much at stake for us to say, 'We need a town hall to make a decision.' "

While far from ideal, Pechthalt told the crowd the deal was a "tactical move needed to avoid a protracted battle against Villaraigosa."

During the meeting, teachers asked a wide range of questions, pressing for details of the reform plan. Some voiced support, while many expressed skepticism.

If passed by the state Legislature when it returns from summer break next month, the proposed reform bill would strip much authority from the seven-member elected school board and give Villaraigosa considerable control over the school district, including the power to hire and fire the district superintendent.

To win the crucial support of UTLA and the California Teachers Assn., Villaraigosa backed off from his initial calls for a complete takeover of the district, which the influential unions promised to torpedo in Sacramento. The mayor made concessions, agreeing, for example, to keep the elected school board intact and preserving its authority to negotiate teacher contracts. (In board elections, UTLA traditionally endorses candidates and provides them with vital financial support.)

Many teachers were also encouraged by early drafts of the proposed bill, which included language that would have allowed teachers and principals at each school the freedom to select the curricula for their classrooms.

In more recent versions of the legislation, however, such flexibility has been dramatically watered down. Those changes, along with continuing confusion over how the mayors of the 27 cities served by L.A. Unified, the board and the empowered superintendent ultimately would share power, have left some to question how much teachers stand to gain in the deal.

"There's really nothing in this bill now to recommend it to teachers," said teacher Warren Fletcher, who helped initiate the meeting. "This is a bill that is already lethally vague, and trying to fix it with more vagueness isn't going to cut it."

Fletcher, who said he opposes the bill but supports union President A.J. Duffy, said a group of about 10 house members with disparate opinions on the legislation and union leaders gathered the roughly 50 signatures needed to call the special meeting. The group was united, he said, in its frustration over not having been involved.

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