Wednesday, July 15, 2009

L.A. UNIFIED DELAYS BIDS ON SCHOOLS: Plan to let district, charters and other groups compete for new facilities draws union opposition.

By Howard Blume | LA Times

July 15, 2009  -- Faced with unrelenting union opposition, the Los Angeles Board of Education put on hold Tuesday a proposal that would have allowed charter operators and other outside groups to bid for control of 50 new schools scheduled to open over the next four years.

The plan, led by board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, would have made available, through a competitive process, new schools that are part of the nation's largest school construction project. The district could compete to run these campuses, along with independently run charter schools, the mayor's office and other institutions and nonprofit groups.

The biggest prize would be the collection of schools at the Wilshire Boulevard site of the Ambassador Hotel, one of the nation's most expensive school construction efforts. Charter operators see in the resolution a chance at new school facilities that are largely unavailable to them now. Some supporters also perceive the motion as a first step allowing the takeover of any school regarded as "failing."

"Choice is an important lever for change and innovation, both of which are needed," Flores Aguilar said. "This resolution is in response to the growing chorus for change and reform."

Part of that chorus was in attendance at Tuesday's board meeting. But board members were tuned in at least as closely to the critics.

"You've made a 'yes' vote to choice [into] a 'no' vote to labor and that is what is what we are opposed to," said Adriana Salazar, the business representative for Teamsters Local 572, which negotiates for about 3,500 district employees, including plant and cafeteria managers. But she said later that her union might see things differently if these campuses remained under contract with district unions. Most charter schools are nonunion.

In a letter to the board, seven unions, including Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, called the proposal "an insult to these children and their families to outsource education to charters and other private entities."

Board member Richard Vladovic co-sponsored the resolution, but he's also a traditional ally of Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, which backed his bid for office. At Tuesday's meeting, he told Flores Aguilar that he supported the "concept" of the resolution, an apparent tactical retreat, and joined a general call for change.

Board President Monica Garcia, also a past union ally, stuck with Flores Aguilar, saying she was prepared to support the plan. Garcia and Flores Aguilar have been recent targets of recall threats by activists with United Teachers Los Angeles. It's not clear how serious this threat is.

United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy said he saw the hand of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the effort -- as a way to get more schools under his control.

The mayor's office said it strongly supports the resolution, but Villaraigosa's school board allies could not reach a majority vote this week.

Flores Aguilar vowed to accept ideas and revisions but not a dilution of her proposal.

District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who has his own reform plan, was notably noncommittal, but said he would work to reach consensus with the school board.

Parents and others spoke for and against the measure during a nearly two-hour debate.

"It's criminal what's happening right now," said George Cole, who represents Bell for a coalition of cities in southeast Los Angeles County. The district "ought to be prosecuted for educational malfeasance."

Cole has been among civic leaders who sought out Flores Aguilar after watching new schools open and immediately produce low test scores and high dropout rates.

"Right now schools can be open forever and fail forever," said charter parent Corri Tate Ravare, a vice president for charter operator ICEF. She pledged community support for board members who stood up to opposition: "We got your back."

The resolution is expected to return to the board Aug. 25.

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