Bullied by Teachers

DEMOCRACY ISN’T PRETTY, and nowhere was that more true than on Wednesday night than at the boisterous and occasionally chaotic meeting of the United Teachers Los Angeles, whose leaders booed, hissed and shouted at each other as they debated Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s compromise plan for seizing power at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Microphones went dead, members interrupted each other and, in the end, the UTLA’s House of Representatives served up a nailbiter of a vote on whether to embrace the mayor’s plan for rearranging the power structure at L.A. Unified.

The House, which serves as the legislative body for 38,000 teachers at L.A. Unified, makes decisions in an Old World fashion; members hold up oversize white cards to show whether they support or oppose a measure. When the union’s leaders asked members if they opposed the mayor’s L.A. Unified legislation, a sea of cards went up. Asked to back the mayor, another sea of white cards went up. To the casual eye, it was hard to tell which side held the upper hand in the debate over L.A. Unified.

When the dust had settled, the UTLA’s legislative branch had endorsed the plan by a relatively narrow margin — 101 votes in favor, 89 against. But by then, the plan, and the union leaders who negotiated it, looked a bit battered. “There’s a split on this, and we’re going to have to regain confidence,” said UTLA vice president Josh Pechthalt, who helped negotiate the deal with Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa’s plan for L.A. Unified was the only item on the agenda at the UTLA’s emergency meeting, a session that took place only because 50 union members submitted a petition demanding a discussion of the bill. After working nearly a year to defeat Villaraigosa’s plan for mayoral control, the UTLA went to Sacramento last month and crafted a compromise granting the mayor veto power over the hiring — and contract extensions — of L.A. Unified’s superintendent. The compromise also strengthens the hand of the superintendent and diminishes the role of the elected seven-member school board, denying its members even the ability to select their own staff.

A breakaway faction within UTLA quickly branded the deal a sellout, saying the union had resurrected Villaraigosa’s plan just as it was near death in the state Legislature. Nearly half of UTLA’s delegates came to Wednesday’s session furious that the deal had not come before them. More than a few questioned whether it will leave them vulnerable in pending contract talks with the school board, several of whom were elected with the UTLA’s backing. “What I’m curious about,” declared eighth-grade history teacher Tom Skidmore, “is the wisdom of striking a backroom agreement that stabs in the back the very people that we’re negotiating with.”

UNION NEGOTIATORS SAID THEY STRUCK the deal because they believed it would blunt mayoral control and prevent Villaraigosa from adding 100 charter schools, campuses that don’t have to follow many rules of the Education Code, throughout the district. Meanwhile, UTLA president A.J. Duffy argued that the plan posed a setback to Villaraigosa’s ambitions.

“He got hardly anything he wanted to begin with,” Duffy argued. “He wanted full mayoral control. He wanted the Board of Education obliterated. He wanted every little bit of power in his hands.”

Pechthalt argued that Villaraigosa’s plan for overseeing 36 underperforming high schools — three high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them — will keep the mayor from allowing an army of charter schools to open. The UTLA vice president also pointed out that Villaraigosa will be a potent ally in the union’s salary negotiations, even if the bill doesn’t go into effect until January 1.

“He told us in meetings, ‘I’m going to be an advocate for you at the bargaining table.’ I think we have to take him up on that,” Pechthalt said.

Villaraigosa offered support in other ways, sending a letter to the UTLA promising to work with the union to elect school board members, four of whom come up for reelection in March. Meanwhile, Villaraigosa in-house counsel Thomas Saenz pointed out that while some teachers may be unhappy, others are criticizing the bill as too pro-union.

“We’re getting hit by both sides, which tells me we’re in the right place, which is the middle,” he said.

Still, the union’s criticism may linger. Minutes after the UTLA vote took place, a few frustrated union leaders said they are looking into forcing a full membership vote on Villaraigosa’s plan — a move that would require, among other things, 500 signatures. UTLA delegate Paul Huebner warned that if the bill passes, cities within L.A. Unified that oppose Villaraigosa’s plan may simply try to leave the district.

“The breakup of the school district will kill us all, and you all need to realize, that’s what’s coming from this legislation,” Huebner declared.

For Villaraigosa, victory comes at a price. Union leaders were quick to call the legislation flawed, a proposal borne of desperation at the thought that state legislators might take up the mayor on his bid for control. And even backers of the plan did not sound like the mayor’s fans.

“We have basically taken a bad idea, mayoral takeover, and made it palatable,” said Monroe High School teacher Gregg Solkovits. “I’m not going to tell you I trust Antonio Villaraigosa. I’m not going to tell you I’m going to vote for Antonio again,” Solkovits told the crowd. “But as far as I can see from this bill, he has been defanged.”


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