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Antonio's Big Test

HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER WARREN FLETCHER had just hung up the phone, finishing yet another call urging a colleague to show up at an emergency meeting of the legislative body that governs United Teachers Los Angeles, the powerful union at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Three weeks after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cut a deal with UTLA to rearrange the power structure at L.A. Unified, Fletcher was working furiously to undo the pact, telling anyone who would listen why he considers it a bad piece of legislation: It’s too vague. It’s too hastily written. It asks teachers to take certain promises on faith. Most importantly, Fletcher warned, the Villaraigosa proposal would create an “imperial superintendent,” one who had more authority over budgets and union contracts while retaining power over textbook selection.

With the state Legislature slated to vote on Villaraigosa’s L.A. Unified bill next month, Fletcher is pushing for the union’s full membership — not just three UTLA leaders who cut a deal in a room — to vote on the bill. Fletcher watched as the union’s board of directors demanded an explanation for why UTLA agreed to a “superpowered superintendent” — only to be told not to worry.

“The response of the leadership was, ‘We’re working with Antonio; he’s someone who’s collaborative,’?” Fletcher recalled. “This [bill] is all premised on the idea that Antonio will be mayor for the entire eight years, and I don’t think you can get a casino to take that bet. I certainly don’t think Phil Angelides would.”

Angelides, of course, is the Democrat running for governor — a man who Villaraigosa has yet to endorse, to the consternation of the party faithful. The mayor, in turn, spent part of last weekend with Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the La Raza conference and is seen as a candidate for governor in 2010 — a scenario that will go much more smoothly if Angelides loses in November, and if Schwarzenegger is forced out by term limits.

July is ushering in a season of creeping doubt for the mayor and his plan for L.A. Unified, a complex bill that would give Villaraigosa veto power over the hiring and firing of the superintendent, yet preserve the elected seven-member school board — albeit with a diminished role.

Although the bill has the enthusiastic backing of UTLA president A.J. Duffy — one of the men who reached the accord with Villaraigosa in private — a breakaway faction within UTLA demanded and got a special session of its House of Representatives to review the plan. The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday evening, hours after the L.A. Weekly goes to print. And even if the faction loses, its effort to force a special meeting — one triggered by a petition from 50 union leaders — hints at the growing reservations over the mayor’s plan.

Six cities within L.A. Unified have already voted to oppose the bill. The Los Angeles Times has published four critical editorials. Then there are the five powerful county supervisors, each of whom would have a seat on Villaraigosa’s 32-member Council of Mayors as representatives of the unincorporated areas within L.A. Unified — communities painted yellow in the Thomas Guide, such as East Los Angeles, Florence and Marina del Rey.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district takes in much of South Los Angeles, voiced major misgivings over the bill’s plan for putting Villaraigosa in charge of three of L.A. Unified’s lowest-performing high schools. In fact, Burke, who endorsed the mayor last year, said she does not want any of the schools in her district to fall under his sway. “The high schools in my district have so many problems and so many issues,” she said. “They don’t need to be involved in any new pilot program, as far as governance is concerned.”

Teachers have been ambivalent about the Villaraigosa bill for different reasons. Some felt they were made to look foolish by UTLA’s leadership, which hammered out its compromise days after union activists personally implored state lawmakers to reject the mayor’s previous plan for taking control of L.A. Unified. Within days, dozens of teachers at Venice High School produced a petition that criticized the compromise agreement reached by the union’s leaders.

“I want the [House of Representatives] to reiterate our original position and tell our president that he went too far in expressing our will,” said English teacher Brad Jones.

Other teachers voiced dismay about a change in wording made to the bill hours after Duffy reached his deal with Villaraigosa. The original draft of the L.A. Unified bill, produced on June 21, promised that the curriculum at each school would be chosen by a committee comprised of that school’s teachers, principal and staff. That language was initially viewed as a coup for the union, giving it more say over the selection of textbooks and other teaching materials that had long rested with the school board and superintendent.

Two days later, the language was gone. And this week, Duffy said the union never wanted or expected teachers to win the power to select teaching materials at individual campuses. “Anybody who understands the legislative process understands that bills change from the moment they hit the floor of the Legislature to the moment they get out and are voted on, and quite frankly, we are happy about that,” he said.

Villaraigosa attorney Thomas Saenz described Fletcher’s warning of an imperial superintendent as a “mischaracterization,” saying such arguments are being made by critics who have not read the bill. Duffy, for his part, argued that there is no need for a membership vote on the bill, since the union took a position favoring a partnership with Villaraigosa in March.

“I believe that once our members get the information, they will be overjoyed with this arrangement,” he added.

Still, since his election as president last year, Duffy has sometimes had trouble convincing the union’s legislative branch to follow his lead. Five months ago, he pushed without success for the union to endorse school-board candidate Monica Garcia, who had the mayor’s blessing. Weeks later, he asked the union’s leadership to back state Assembly candidate Kevin de León — also supported vigorously by Villaraigosa — and was turned away.

Duffy argued that the Villaraigosa school bill will result in reduced bureaucracy. But Fletcher, the UTLA activist, said there is no specific language in the bill to achieve that goal, and suggested that Duffy is asking the membership to go on faith. Instead, Fletcher said he will ask for a full union vote, then recommend that the membership vote no.

“At this point, this thing has been done under dark cover of night. It’s a bad bill that will result in bad public policy no matter who wins,” he said.

For coverage of the UTLA meeting, see laweekly.com.


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