Friday, November 06, 2009

LAUSD REFORMS MAY SKIP PILOT SCHOOLS: District, teachers union at odds over expansion plan.

Cortines: "If the union puts a moratorium on pilots, I will push for more charters."

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Newspaper Group/Daily News

Posted: 11/05/2009 09:33:32 PM PST/Updated: 11/05/2009 09:48:53 PM PST

Nov. 6 -- With just 10 days left before Los Angeles Unified begins accepting bids from outside operators to run some of its underperforming schools, the best option for the district to retain some of those schools might not be available.

Pilot schools — small schools where parents and staff have more influence, but the district still has control — have expanded in recent years as an alternative to traditional schools. They are also an alternative to popular charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate independently of the district.

Both types of schools are eligible to take over operation of traditional public schools under the district's ambitious "Schools Choice Plan."

But because the district and the teachers union have not been able to agree on a plan to expand the number of pilot schools, now limited to 10, it might not be an option at a time in the district's history when options and choices are needed most.

Since teachers at pilot schools work under a more flexible contract, the teachers union is uneasy about seeing them grow without more protection for teachers. District officials, which see the pilot schools as an innovative way of reforming schools without giving up control, want the union to step out of the way and allow pilot school expansion.

"I will not allow some teacher representatives to hold back educational progress ...," LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said recently in an interview. "If the union puts a moratorium on pilots, I will push for more charters."

The district would like to have an agreement by next week ahead of the Nov. 15 deadline for the first round of applications.

But United Teachers Los Angeles officials say certain elements of the contract need to be changed to ensure teachers are protected.

For example, UTLA wants to see teacher discipline handled by arbitration, rather than by LAUSD personnel, as the pilot school contract currently allows.

"I am trying to come up with contract language that expands pilots and that also has the possibility of passing a vote of my governing bodies," said UTLA President A.J. Duffy.

The pilot school model, imported to Los Angeles from Boston, has been generally supported by UTLA because it gives teachers more control.

At a pilot school, a board made up of teachers, parents, administrators and students in high school makes all budget, curriculum, calendar and staffing decisions.

But the amended contract under which teachers work at pilot schools — known as a "thin" contract because it is 70 pages compared to the standard 300-page contract — also streamlines several policies affecting teachers, including how they are hired, fired and disciplined.

As the union continues to work on a new proposal with the district, community organizations have begun to pressure UTLA to approve an expansion of pilots, and protests are being organized by local groups for next week.

Duffy said he understands the community's frustration.

"There are some very well-meaning people within the union who do not see change as something that is necessary, and I disagree," he said.

In the meantime, district officials in charge of guiding schools through LAUSD's reform effort say their hands are tied now as they wait for an agreement on pilot schools.

"The union is holding this hostage, and we find that unacceptable," said Edmundo Rodriguez, LAUSD's pilot school director.

"There are literally hundreds of teachers and thousands of parents that cannot stand to function in the same old educational system."

Currently there are seven pilot schools districtwide, all located around the Pico-Union neighborhood west of downtown, with 10 expected to open soon.

Rodriguez said an additional 40 schools across the district have now expressed interest in converting their schools to a pilot model, including at least half of the schools that LAUSD put out for bid under the school choice plan.

"I don't understand why the union would stand in the way of the most progressive option currently available for schools who want reform but also want to maintain district and UTLA affiliations," said Veronica Melvin, executive director of Alliance for a Better Community.

"It is so odd that they choose to do this now ... at a time when leadership is needed more than ever to allow reform to happen."

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