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L.A. mayor takes charge of new Boyle Heights school

The Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center becomes the 11th under Antonio Villaraigosa's control. The teachers union may challenge him.

August 01, 2009|Howard Blume

The city's mayor is quietly taking control of a newly built high school in Boyle Heights, but the teachers union may challenge that conquest, part of a growing war between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and United Teachers Los Angeles.

The school at issue is the $106-million Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center, which is to open this fall. Nearly all students will come from the attendance area for Roosevelt High School, which already belongs to the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

The transfer of the new school, Villaraigosa's 11th campus, was approved by L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, according to the mayor's team, and the office of school board President Monica Garcia, a close ally of the mayor.

Cortines was out of town and unavailable Friday. The Board of Education did not vote on the matter. The district's communication's office could not confirm the transfer, referring inquiries to the school board president.

One administrator for the new school quit in April after learning that the partnership would be in charge.

The mayor's team has been open about wanting the new school all along, said the partnership's chief executive, Marshall Tuck. He said Cortines consented in March and formalized a written agreement in April.

"I didn't talk with UTLA about it," Tuck said. "We had talked with certain teachers about it. They would ask us. Those people could have been completely unconnected to UTLA leadership."

The mayor's expanded territory makes sense, said Luis Sanchez, chief of staff for Garcia, who is traveling in Mexico.

"You can't give [Roosevelt] away . . . and then open up a brand new school the next year that takes 1,000 kids away [from Roosevelt] and have consistency with your work," Sanchez said. "Change is difficult at all levels. Roosevelt hasn't been a good school for years. The partnership has done as good as they could to challenge that."

"If we gave the old leadership at Roosevelt the benefit of doubt when they had a 60% dropout rate for 40 years, we have to do the same for the mayor for five years."

Under a process agreed to by the union and the Los Angeles Unified School District, teachers and parents had to separately endorse the partnership before a school could be included.

That has not happened with the new school.

Sanchez said Roosevelt's teachers approved the mayor's plan by a wide margin in December 2007. The new school's faculty, he said, will consist mostly of Roosevelt teachers who voluntarily switched.

It's not clear, however, that teachers would now vote the same way. In May, on a 184-15 vote, Roosevelt teachers expressed "no confidence" in the mayor's team. In a later survey of school morale, 86.1% said it was worse or much worse, according to teacher and union co-chair John Fernandez. And 58.6% gave the partnership an F as an overall grade in its first year, he said.

Eight of the nine other current partnership schools also gave the mayor poor first-year marks. Some teachers faulted the mayor's team for a "top-down management style," the opposite of what Villaraigosa pledged. They also cite a dearth of promised additional resources. Leaders of the mayor's team have pledged to address such concerns.

Regarding the new school, "the teachers haven't voted and the parents haven't voted," Fernandez said.

The dispute over the new school coincides with a deterioration of the relationship between the mayor's office and United Teachers Los Angeles, for which Villaraigosa once worked as an organizer.

The mayor recently called the union "dysfunctional" in a television interview. He also was displeased that the union and the school district couldn't agree on union concessions that would have avoided teacher layoffs. Villaraigosa's schools were especially hard hit because they employ more new teachers who lack seniority protections.

Teachers union President A.J. Duffy said the mayor falsely suggested that the union was unwilling to negotiate.

The dispute echoes another brewing struggle over a proposal that would let outside organizations -- including the mayor's -- bid to take over new schools across the city. The mayor has sided with charter schools and other proponents against UTLA and other employee unions. The school board is scheduled to take up the issue this month.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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