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District blunts Locke High's revolt

Saying most tenured teachers no longer back a takeover, L.A. Unified tosses out Green Dot's charter plan. The firm's founder cries foul.

June 02, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

In the high-stakes struggle for control over one of the city's most troubled public schools, Los Angeles school district officials have rejected plans by a leading charter group to take over the campus.

Last month, Green Dot Public Schools announced that it had collected "signatures of interest" from a majority of the tenured teachers at Locke High School -- clearing the major legal hurdle toward converting the campus into a series of charter schools.

But on Friday, Los Angeles Unified School District officials threw out the formal takeover plan submitted by Green Dot on grounds that the group no longer has the support of a majority of the teachers. Many faculty members rescinded their signatures, district officials said, because of confusion over the proposed takeover.

The district's decision drew a quick and angry response from Green Dot leaders, who accused district leaders of deliberately trying to undermine their efforts. They vowed to push ahead with plans to convert Locke by 2008.

Charters are publicly funded but run independently, outside of many of the regulations imposed by school districts. In exchange for the freedom to innovate in the classroom, charters must improve student performance.

Unlike the handful of other schools that converted to charters in L.A. Unified, Green Dot's gambit, if successful, would mark the first time an outside charter group organized a break from the district. Since Locke teachers indicated a willingness to leave the district, teachers at two other high schools have met with Green Dot founder Steve Barr to discuss possible partnerships.

The prospect of a teacher revolt at Locke, as well as losing control of a campus and its millions in state funds, had sent district and teacher union officials scrambling to counter Green Dot.

Within days of Green Dot's announcement, district officials had Locke Principal Frank Wells escorted off campus and relieved of his duties pending the outcome of a district investigation into allegations that he allowed teachers to leave their classrooms to collect and sign the petitions.

In hurried, closed-door faculty meetings, district officials tried to assuage frustrated teachers with sudden offers of increased authority and reforms. Officials also emphasized that, if the takeover went through, teachers would have to reapply to Green Dot for a job at the newly reconfigured Locke or transfer to another district school, and that Green Dot does not offer lifetime benefits provided by the district. And, because of strict state law, teachers were told their signatures would leave the district's Board of Education little choice but to approve Green Dot's takeover if it reached them for a vote.

After the meetings, 17 of the 41 teachers who had signed the petitions asked to remove their signatures, saying they had not fully understood the implications, district officials said.

"This is not a technicality of whether teachers signed the right form or not," said Kevin Reed, the district's general counsel. "This is a question of whether they had a true understanding of what they were signing."

Indeed, confusion seems to have pervaded every aspect of this power struggle between Green Dot and the district. Some teachers interviewed by The Times said that Wells and others who gathered signatures had not been clear on Green Dot's plan. Other teachers said they withdrew their signatures after district officials indicated they had put their district employment at risk.

One of those teachers, history instructor Frank Wiley, said that, like most faculty at Locke, he was desperate to see some improvements at the school, which has languished for years as one of the district's worst, where half of the 2,800 students drop out and others post dismally low scores in state testing.

Wiley signed the petition in hopes it would bring changes but had no intention of joining the Green Dot staff. District officials, he said, led him to believe that his signature was tantamount to resigning from the district and applying to Green Dot.

The petitions, copies of which were obtained by The Times, used language commonly included in charter conversions, in which signatures "indicate that [teachers] are meaningfully interested in teaching at this charter school."

Reed, senior district official Kathi Littmann and district Supt. David L. Brewer have said repeatedly in interviews that teachers were not coerced or pressured to change their minds.

Regardless, Barr accused district leaders of deliberately misleading teachers about Green Dot's takeover plan.

Barr expressed confidence that Green Dot would win back teachers -- and regain the 13 signatures they need for a majority -- after the faculty learns more about Green Dot's model, which places high demands on teachers but offers them higher pay and more autonomy over resources and curriculum.

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