NEW FACE OF UTLA
English teacher brings new look as union leader
By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer, LA Daily News | http://bit.ly/qjunck
FIRST 100 DAYS FOR LAUSD SUPERINTENDENT
John Deasy gets good marks from mayor, others
By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer, LA Daily News | http://bit.ly/prh0BO
Warren Fletcher took over as president of United Teachers Los Angeles on July 1. He was photographed at the UTLA office on Thursday, July 28, 2011. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer) (Michael Owen Baker)
7/29/2011 09:52:18 PM PDT - Most people would relish the chance to be called president -- especially the nation's second-largest teachers union, representing some 40,000 educators, substitutes and counselors.
But Warren Fletcher, newly elected to head United Teachers Los Angeles, prefers to keep the title he's used for the last 28 years.
"I always make sure I am introduced as an English teacher, because that is what I am first and foremost -- a teacher."
Fletcher is a fan of using metaphors and citing literary classics to get his points across. To express his priorities for the union, he recited a rhythmic poem that he said teachers have been using for years.
"Lower class sizes, higher pay, fix the roof and get out of the way," he said.
Thoughtful and at times meandering, his responses to questions contrast sharply to the brusque style of his predecessor, A.J. Duffy.
And his usual black nurse's shoes, plaid button-down shirts and khaki pants are also a far cry from Duffy's uniform of double-breasted suits, suspenders and two-toned shoes.
Fletcher cautions, however, that his low-key demeanor should not be perceived as weakness.
"A good teacher doesn't have to yell to get their point across."
Fletcher also knows how to be persistent. The veteran teacher has been active within the union for about as long as he's been teaching. He campaigned more than once to be UTLA president, but without success.
An ability to withstand adversity could come in handy now that he's finally won the leadership role.
Since 2008, Los Angeles Unified's financial crisis resulted in the elimination of thousands of teachers, counselors and librarians - layoffs that likewise reduced the union's membership.
Layoffs have drawn attention to union-supported work rules, like the seniority system that forces the district to let go of teachers based on years of experience rather than performance.
And mounting public pressure for school reform has pushed school board members and new Superintendent John Deasy to approve drastic changes to the system, often putting them at odds with UTLA.
Meanwhile, independently run charter schools, which are not required to hire union workers, have thrived - taking students from LAUSD schools and threatening UTLA jobs.
Duffy, who led the union during this upheaval, often referred to the last few years as "battle" years. He acknowledged that his leadership style was aggressive but he felt this was necessary considering the circumstances.
"I chose to be bombastic so that people would listen," Duffy said.
"But union leadership needs to be able to tell the story of teachers at a time when teachers' stories are being distorted."
Duffy encouraged Fletcher to -- in his own way -- keep the spotlight on the union.
"Without a powerful voice to tell the other side, nobody is going to hear about the struggles of teachers."
School board member Steve Zimmer said he hoped Fletcher's collegial style could repair much needed lines of communication.
"He's serious, substantive and intellectual, and these are all things that could be very positive ... but it's still going to be a huge challenge," Zimmer said.
As Fletcher juggles his relationships with the political forces outside the union, he'll also have to manage various factions within UTLA.
From substitute teachers to counselors, every type of teacher has different concerns and different views on the union's direction.
"Warren is becoming president at a critical time where literally the state of the union and the future of public education in Los Angeles will be impacted to a large degree by how well he does as president," said Gregg Solkovits, UTLA's secondary vice president and a veteran union activist.
Still, Fletcher doesn't seem daunted by his new job.
"I don't rant and I don't rave ... I'm a low-key guy," Fletcher said.
"But I know what's important ... and I know what teachers care about."
John Deasy, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent, Tuesday, photographed on July 26, 2011. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)
0/29/2011 10:03:11 PM PDT A former high school chemistry and biology teacher, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy approaches his job as head of the nation's second largest school district like he would a science experiment -- methodically and with precision.
His analytical and often unemotional way of doing business has already earned him a reputation with some for being disconnected and indifferent.
But with his first 100 days just behind him, and the start of his first school year just weeks away, Deasy said he has no time to apologize for his direct approach.
"I know I can come off as short and uncaring... I care deeply... but I also know that there is a very short period of time in a kid's life where I can make things vastly different for them," Deasy said.
"There is just too much work ahead of us."
Since taking over from retired Superintendent Ramon Cortines on April 15, Deasy has wasted no time pushing forward with a number of initiatives.
In just 45 days, Deasy secured furlough agreements with all but one of the district's employee unions, which reduced the number of expected layoffs at LAUSD by more than half and preserved current class sizes and most academic programs.
He's also taken action to overhaul teacher evaluations, launching a pilot system that will use student test score data; he's made school meals healthier, banning chocolate milk and demanding more vegetarian options for kids; and under his tenure LAUSD has pressed fast-forward on an initiative to shut down low-performing campuses.
To date eight low-performing LAUSD schools have been overhauled.
As if his plate wasn't full enough Deasy, who downs five cups of coffee a day and doesn't leave home without his iPhone, also makes time to leave messages almost daily for Southland parents, students, teachers and union leaders via Twitter.
Deasy admits that some elements of the job have been far more complex than he imagined when he took the position, "but I'm loving every minute of it," he said.
Local leaders and education observers, especially those pushing for major change at LAUSD, have noticed Deasy's efforts and are already singing his praises.
"John Deasy has hit the ground running and I think he's exceeded even the highest expectations we all had for him," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has supported Deasy since his hire as deputy superintendent last year.
"I think he's staked out a path to usher the LAUSD into the 21st century and towards a kids-first agenda," said Ben Austin, former state board member and founder of pro-reform group "Parent Revolution."
Still early in his administration, district teachers and school workers seem more ambivalent about the new school chief.
Some employees complain that Deasy has pushed reforms forward without consulting workers and he's made more time for national speeches than visiting local schools. They also question his decision to hire members of his leadership team with six-figure salaries at a time of fiscal crisis.
"He's holed up on the 24th floor with his advisers... he's not invested in this district, in the people here or in this community," said Connie Moreno, an official with the California School Employees Association, which represents school office managers, library aides and other school workers.
CSEA is the one district union that held out on agreeing to furloughs.
Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said his view of the superintendent so far is not as pessimistic.
Fletcher, who took over the leadership of UTLA this month, is still developing a relationship with Deasy that he hopes will be cordial and cooperative but for now if he had to give the superintendent a grade he said it would be an "incomplete."
The teachers union is fighting in court with the district over Deasy's decision to launch a pilot teacher evaluation system without negotiating with UTLA and over the overhaul of two district schools.
Fletcher said these tensions, coupled with a lack of face time with many educators, have left many in his membership feeling frustrated with the district leader.
"We want him to be the educational leader of this district... someone who can stop enabling dubious policies and practices and advocate for what's best for students," Fletcher said.
"But I am still hopeful that he'll step up and do that."
Bill Ring, a longtime parent advocate, also wondered if a well-meaning but overly ambitious Deasy has taken on more than he can chew in his first few months.
"Given that he's trying to do so much, and I'm not faulting him for that, I'm concerned about what happens if he doesn't make that progress," Ring said.
Deasy's prominence on the national stage and frequent speaking engagements also have some wondering if he's going to stay long enough at LAUSD to implement all of his reforms.
Since April, Deasy has had speaking engagements in Washington D.C., New York and Aspen as well as several across Los Angeles.
"Some people in the community are already saying they only give him a year," Ring said.
Deasy chuckled at the idea that he's aiming for another job already. He said the school board, which hired him under a contract with no buy-out clause, will ultimately decide how long he gets to keep his job. However, he said he'd like to stay at least five to eight years.
It is only with that kind of time on the job that Deasy believes he can accomplish everything he wants to for LAUSD, like increasing enrollment by growing the number of theme-based schools.
He also plans to launch a "Los Angeles Fund for Public Education," hoping to raise some $500 million for local schools. He would also like to lead the effort for a parcel tax to support district programs.
He said he wants to "elevate" the image of teachers and administrators. Many of the changes he plans to ask the teachers union for this year -- like better evaluations and more flexible work rules -- are a way to give educators more power, he said.
"What happens at LAUSD is of incredible national significance... Los Angeles is the rest of the country, only sooner," Deasy said. "The problems we face are coming to a city near you."