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Contested UTLA panel elections signal internal fissures

Some union members fear outside groups that encouraged teachers to run for UTLA's House of Representatives, its official decision-making body, will try to influence policy.

December 26, 2012|By Howard Blume and Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

The young staff at the Alexander Science Center has been hard hit by seniority-based layoffs, the main factor behind a turnover of at least 28 teachers in the last five years — this in a school with a faculty of about 28.

Teachers say that the students at the USC-adjacent campus have suffered from the lack of stability and that the faculty has felt frustrated and voiceless.

But now, three instructors from the Alexander science school are among the freshman class of delegates to the House of Representatives for United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union in the L.A. Unified School District.

The House is the union's official decision-making body: It selects candidates to endorse in elections and has the final say on policy — taking precedence over the president and the board of directors.

The recent elections, concluded this month, were the most contested in years, by far.

Of 32 election districts, 22 featured contested bids for seats that typically could be had for the asking through a self-nomination process. In all, 396 candidates vied for 209 positions, with 100 won by teachers not in the current House.

The ideology of the new delegates is varied, and still evolving. They are concerned about job security, teacher turnover, performance evaluations and funding levels. But they are also worried about what some see as a combative but ineffectual and sometimes wrongheaded union and a demanding, ossified district bureaucracy.

The level of interest in the House elections surprised union leaders and veteran teachers alike — some of whom greeted the nouveau activism with concern. They note that outside groups encouraged teachers to run and worry that such groups will try to influence union policy.

Two outside groups are local arms of national organizations, Educators 4 Excellence and Teach Plus. A third group, Teachers for a New Unionism, is headed by Mike Stryer, a Fairfax High teacher on leave who lost a bid for the school board four years ago. His team reached teachers through home mailings, urging them to run.

All the groups are funded by major nonprofits, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has huge investments in education research and sometimes controversial policy positions. And all assert their desire for a union that better serves the interests of teachers as well as students.

Some in UTLA perceive an unholy alliance among these groups, their sponsoring foundations and L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, a former Gates official.

"Taking over our House of Reps is clearly their strategy to destroy us," wrote teacher Anne Zerrien-Lee in an email posted to an online teachers forum.

"We have enough enemies outside of UTLA that we shouldn't have to deal with school district and Gates puppets within," said regional union leader Scott Mandel in an interview.

Without question, the outside groups see things differently than the leadership of UTLA.

Notably, the union has wanted to limit, as much as possible, the effect of test scores on a teacher's performance evaluation. The outside groups or their funders have backed the use of standardized test scores — or formulas based on them — as one key measure of a teacher's effectiveness.

Secondly, the outside groups want layoffs based on teacher effectiveness rather than seniority; the unions defend the seniority system as the most equitable approach.

Still, Teach Plus wasn't trying to recruit candidates who passed a litmus test, said Executive Director John Lee.

"Our desire wasn't to have a Teach Plus caucus but to connect teachers with leadership opportunities," Lee said.

The new delegates emphasize their loyalty to their profession and to their mission.

"I love teaching," said 35-year-old Antoinette Pippin, a fourth-grade teacher at Alexander Science Center. "I love my students, but I'm seeing a lot of things right now that are bad for my students and bad for teachers."

"And the image a lot of us have of UTLA is of a bunch of people arguing, blowing hot air," she said.

Pippin would have qualms about relying on test scores only for teacher evaluations. She's also unpersuaded that the district has a more reliable method than seniority for laying off teachers, although she thinks her school has been unfairly damaged by seniority-based layoffs.

Frustrated by the turnover, she considered leaving teaching; instead she ran for the House and won. She was persuaded to try by a colleague involved with Teach Plus.

That group funds 28 teacher fellows, who spend 18 months delving into an educational issue. Teach Plus also created a working group of teachers to encourage colleagues to run for the House.

First-time House member Jairo De La Torre, 31, applied for a Teach Plus fellowship this year, but was not selected. He's been an active UTLA member for years, attending House meetings as an observer and serving as the union representative at Alexander.

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