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Rumor of deal roils teachers union

UTLA members allege that one of their leaders made a private arrangement on staffing with a school board candidate. Antonio Sanchez and union vice president Gregg Solkovits deny any deal.

April 24, 2013|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

The leadership of the Los Angeles teachers union is roiled over whether its officials made a private deal with a Board of Education candidate whom critics view as an ally of anti-labor forces.

The dispute centers on an alleged understanding worked out between candidate Antonio Sanchez and Gregg Solkovits, a union vice president. According to people with knowledge of the matter, Solkovits has said that Sanchez, if he wins, would let United Teachers Los Angeles choose his chief of staff.

Sanchez and Solkovits deny any such arrangement. Sanchez said he has no idea what the claim is based on; Solkovits blamed a willful misinterpretation of comments he made in leadership meetings.

The internal dispute says as much about union politics as about Sanchez. A struggle exists between pragmatists, such as Solkovits, who talk about the importance of working with current and potential school district officials, and idealists who want to see a relentless push to replace current leaders and unpopular policies.

An arrangement with Sanchez would be notable because he is endorsed by the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee that supports the policies of L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy and wants to keep his job secure. Its endorsed candidates, including Sanchez, have pledged as much.

Deasy has successfully pushed to include student standardized test scores in teacher evaluations and to limit job protections in the name of improving the teacher corps, among other things.

The union has been sharply critical of Deasy, even handing him an overwhelming "no confidence" vote from its members this month.

But in March, UTLA mounted only one serious campaign for the Board of Education. That effort helped to reelect incumbent Steve Zimmer. Also winning, however, was incumbent Monica Garcia, the board president whom the union dislikes.

The east San Fernando Valley District 6 seat remains up for grabs in a May 21 runoff. Sanchez, 31, a former aide to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, faces teacher Monica Ratliff, 43, a former attorney. In March, Sanchez took 44% of the vote compared with 34% for Ratliff.

In the primary, the union had endorsed three candidates for District 6, but provided no financial support to any of them. As a result, the coalition, spearheaded by Villaraigosa, was key to a huge funding advantage for Sanchez. Some unions also helped Sanchez.

In the runoff, the teachers union has given $1,000 to Ratliff. The coalition has amassed close to $1 million for Sanchez.

The internal dispute within UTLA became a topic on a website used by activist teachers.

"How about the backroom deal UTLA leadership made with Sanchez to support his campaign as long as he agreed to hire someone from UTLA as his chief of staff????" wrote UTLA board of directors member Jose Lara in a March 30 post. "I am not okay with backroom deals and then being told, 'That's the way things get done.'"

When contacted, Lara declined to elaborate, but didn't recant either. Lara supports Ratliff, and, like some other members, questions how the union could support Sanchez.

Solkovits said that the union had interviewed Sanchez before the coalition embraced him. He added that all UTLA-backed candidates were open to the idea that "at least one of the people on the staff would have relatively close ties to UTLA. I mentioned that at a board meeting," Solkovits said. The critics "chose to construe this as a deal."

"The goal was always to have good working relationships with whoever got elected," Solkovits said. "We don't ask for guarantees."

Several union veterans insist that Solkovits is underplaying the message that he and his allies conveyed. But they would not speak publicly because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

"This is something that Gregg was pitching to sell Sanchez to UTLA," said one veteran union leader, echoing comments that typically came from Ratliff supporters. They added that the pitch for Sanchez also included his support from powerful elected officials — and that these officials were needed to fight off unwanted legislation that would affect teacher job evaluations and job protections.

Solkovits acknowledged that at union leadership meetings he suggested two UTLA insiders who would serve well in a staff position: former school board staffer Ed Burke and former UTLA President John Perez.

Burke retired in December from a position with board member Bennett Kayser, a staunch union ally. Burke said only that he nixed the idea of possibly working for Sanchez. He also recently attended a fundraiser for Ratliff.

Perez, who is a vehement Deasy critic, said he has had no discussions with Sanchez about working for him. Sanchez characterized Perez as one of a number of people he respects as a source of advice.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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