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L.A. Unified fight focuses on breakfast program

Supt. John Deasy is leaving key funding decisions up to the board, the most controversial being the fate of morning meals in the classroom.

April 26, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy chats with Luisa Garcia, 8, at Figueroa Street Elementary School as they share breakfast.
L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy chats with Luisa Garcia, 8, at Figueroa Street… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles Unified will eliminate a classroom breakfast program serving nearly 200,000 children, reject more school police, cut administrators and scale back new construction projects unless the school board votes to approve them, according to Supt. John Deasy.

Heading into a fierce battle over funding priorities, Deasy said this week that he would give "maximum responsibility" to the board to decide between those programs and demands by United Teachers Los Angeles to restore jobs and increase pay.

In an April 12 memo obtained by the Times on Friday, Deasy outlined eight items the district would not fund without explicit board approval, including a request for an additional $1.4 million for KLCS-TV public television, small schools that are underenrolled and other unspecified programs.

But the proposed elimination of the breakfast program has drawn the most immediate backlash and pits two of the district's most influential labor unions against each other. Deasy said he proposed eliminating the classroom breakfasts, which were expanded from a small pilot program to 280 schools last year, after "UTLA made it very clear about how this program is a big problem."

UTLA, representing 35,000 teachers, nurses, librarians and others, will not back the program unless it is moved out of the classroom and concerns over lost teaching time and messes are addressed, according to Juan Ramirez, a union vice president. The union posted a video and poll findings on its website stating that more than half of 729 teachers surveyed said they disliked the program in part because it took an average 30 minutes to set up, feed the children and clean up. In a flier to parents, the union said the time lost to the breakfast program amounted to eight instructional days.

"We need to think of our students first, and our biggest concern is instructional time," Ramirez said, adding that the union was willing to seek an alternative nutrition method with district officials.

But Service Employees International Union, Local 99 said more than 900 cafeteria workers among nearly 45,000 school service employees it represents would lose their jobs if the program were eliminated. The union announced that it would begin a week of rallies at schools to save the classroom breakfasts, starting Tuesday at Hooper Avenue Elementary.

Courtni Pugh, Local 99's executive director, said that many of her workers were also L.A. Unified parents who would lose both jobs and extra nutritional opportunities for their children without the program.

The possibility of eliminating classroom breakfasts dumbfounded the program's supporters.

"We'd be out of our minds to cut something that is feeding hungry children," said Megan Chernin, a philanthropist who launched with Deasy the nonprofit Los Angeles Fund for Public Education. The nonprofit has contributed $200,000 to fund an eight-member administrative team to help train educators on how to roll out the program at their schools.

The program was launched to increase the number of children eating breakfast; only 29% of those eligible for free or discounted morning meals were actually eating them when served before school in the cafeteria. Now, 89% of children are eating breakfast and schools are reporting higher attendance, fewer tardies, greater student focus and decreased trips to the nurse's office, according to David Binkle, the district's food services director.

Binkle said the program has brought $6.1 million to the district this year in federal school breakfast reimbursements and that sum is projected to increase to $20 million if the program is expanded to more than 680 schools, as had been planned for the next two years.

Tufts University is evaluating the program and expects to have preliminary findings in the fall.

Deasy said he would recommend that the board restore the program and, in a statement Friday, said he was confident that the board would "enthusiastically and unanimously" do so at its May 14 meeting. But he said the fight over such programs and union demands for more jobs and higher pay would provoke "a very public and intense meeting" in May.

At least one board member, President Monica Garcia, said she would vote to continue the program. Charting a possible way forward were schools such as Malabar Elementary, where students ate together outside their classroom, Garcia said.

She said she wasn't enthralled by Deasy's abrupt move to throw the decisions to the board over classroom breakfasts, more school police and other individual items instead of past practices of bringing an overall recommended budget.

"It's not my favorite strategy, but I understand choices have to be made," she said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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