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The Parent Trap

With an upcoming $3.35 billion school-bond vote, L.A. Unified wants to project a new image -- sleek, professional, responsive, successful. But the photo taken at a recent parents’ meeting presents quite another image. In this picture, district parent leader Oscar Almaguer is being handcuffed and led away for the heinous crime of -- drum roll, please -- attending a meeting of parents.

A district official claimed that Almaguer had no right to go to the meeting, which was for officers of parent groups. And Almaguer is a former officer -- a fact that is itself in dispute. Yet the meeting was not billed as a closed-door executive session, and parent meetings are open to the public.

When Almaguer refused to leave, a district administrator had him cuffed and escorted outside. A parent snapped the photo that will definitely not become a campaign poster for the bond drive. Unless, of course, it‘s used by the side urging a ”no“ vote.

A senior district official called the cuffing of Almaguer an error. ”Those who are creating a disruption have to leave, or we cancel the parents meeting,“ said associate superintendent Theodore Alexander Jr. ”No, I don’t like people being handcuffed. I would not add fuel to the fire.“

Whether or not Almaguer was truly causing a disruption also is in dispute. The administrator who ordered Almaguer‘s removal is Sylvia Ruiz, who heads the Parent Community Services Branch. Ruiz, a former principal who is fairly new to the job, said she was not able to reach Alexander, her supervisor, for guidance.

Almaguer says that his real offense is refusing to be a docile parent, one who rubber-stamps district decisions. L.A. Unified has long had a quixotic, uneasy relationship with parents. Officials preach parental involvement and offer a mind-numbing array of parent committees and organizations. But some of the most involved parents contend that what the district wants most is quiet consent and unquestioning approval. And Almaguer has been a pain when it comes to requesting public records or reviewing legal guidelines.

All that most parents want is to drop off their kids at school with a confident feeling that their children will be safe and well taught. The 42-year-old Almaguer, who sells furniture over the Internet, is that rare parent who is willing and somehow able to devote hours to the cause of education -- his children’s and others‘. In the fall of 2000, within the breathtaking span of about a month, he was first chosen as a parent representative at his children’s school, next elected an officer of the parents‘ council of his local-area school district (L.A. Unified has 11 such districts), and then voted into the chairmanship of the District Advisory Council (DAC) that serves all of L.A. Unified.

The District Advisory Council represents disadvantaged students and their families, which make up more than half the school district. Having a DAC is a state requirement, a safeguard to ensure parental review and feedback for annual ”compensatory“ funding totaling more than $412 million. L.A. Unified struggles to find parents to fill this and myriad other roles: the bilingual advisory committee, the school-site council, the Parent Collaborative, the PTA, and on and on. This infrastructure is hopelessly complicated. But leadership training for parents is limited, no surprise in a district whose paid professionals have their own leadership deficiencies. As parent Bill Ring noted, ”This results most often in a principal grabbing a parent by the hand and saying, ’Can you give me a signature on something? Thank you.‘“

The other side is that parents are a mixed bag in terms of qualifications and motivations. District officials sometimes decry ”professional parents,“ that is, parents who try to run the school district. Almaguer had raised hackles by wanting more detailed budget information, among other things. When such information was not provided, he persuaded parents to vote down approval of the district’s compensatory-funding application. Almaguer knew the gesture was merely symbolic; the state requires only DAC review, not approval. But Almaguer was definitely causing trouble.

Almaguer had been elected to a one-year term as chair in November of 2000. But at the end of the school year, several months before Almaguer‘s term expired, he stepped down as head of the DAC. District officials say he jumped; he says he was pushed, on the grounds that his son had just graduated from Hammel Street Elementary in East Los Angeles, and he, therefore, no longer represented a school.

Almaguer said he didn’t yet know enough to disagree, even though his daughter still attends Hammel Street Elementary.

No matter. He immediately became the parent rep at his son‘s new school, and parents re-elected Almaguer to head the DAC in November of 2001. And Almaguer continued to prod the district for documents from every district campus. He wanted the DAC to review the operation of parent committees. It was a burdensome request to be sure, but ultimately L.A. Unified had no basis to refuse public records. About a year after the initial request, said Almaguer, officials provided boxes of documents. Almaguer and other parents reviewed a sample from 200 schools, and they claim that not one followed all regulatory guidelines for parent involvement.

State and district officials know that L.A. Unified isn’t in compliance. A June 2001 letter from the Department of Education, for example, noted non-functioning parent councils, administrators who verbally abused parents and a general lack of information for parents. Parent groups filed a complaint with the state in 1997, and five years later, Case No. 442, as it is called in Sacramento, a remains unresolved, despite ongoing settlement negotiations. Parent leaders were not included, a shortcoming that administrator Ruiz says she now wants to rectify.

Early this summer, when Almaguer on behalf of the DAC asked to review the draft settlement, a state staffer politely declined, at the behest of L.A. Unified. The school district had told the state that Almaguer no longer headed the DAC. The staffer, when called by the Weekly, confirmed this account as well as the information about the district‘s continued lack of compliance since 1997.

Once again, the district had found reasons to expel Almaguer, and once again, the rationale is open to interpretation. For example, the district cited a rule saying an officer is removed after missing three meetings in a row. Almaguer countered that he was absent only once (while attending about 90 meetings over the year). Even the district acknowledges that Almaguer attended the first two hours of one of these meetings, but contends the meeting still counts as an absence because he didn’t stay a full three hours. Almaguer said he departed only to attend yet another district meeting.

Almaguer said he received nothing in writing till August 8, though the district claims he forfeited his DAC membership in June. (He chaired the June and July DAC meetings, at which district staffers were present.)

Which brings matters to the July 31 officers‘ meeting, where Ruiz asserted that Almaguer had no right to take part and warned him not to enter the room. ”I said, ’I know my rights,‘“ recalled Almaguer. ”I also said, ’You do what you have to do.‘“

Ruiz departed to commandeer a security officer. When the officer asked Almaguer to leave, Almaguer insisted that the meeting was open to the public.

As far as public meetings go, associate superintendent Alexander agrees with Almaguer. But Almaguer knowingly instigated a disruption among parents by raising questions about his dismissal, in the view of Ruiz and the other district staffer present. On the other hand, the meeting had not even started.

It was Almaguer’s camera that recorded the detention; he‘d given it to another parent. All witnesses agree that Almaguer wanted to be handcuffed and photographed. ”If he was going to be removed,“ said a neutral parent, ”I guess he wanted to be removed in such a way that he had a record of it.“

Witnesses included Parent Collaborative board member Bill Ring, who said he didn’t know what was going on, and Francisco Torrero, another DAC officer, who said he has since resigned in protest.

Moments later, the apologetic officer released Almaguer. Ruiz, meanwhile, abruptly canceled the meeting, leaving behind a roomful of parents who had rearranged their Wednesday-morning schedules to take part.

At a parents‘ meeting last week, uniformed security were suddenly part of the ambiance. Almaguer went to that meeting but didn’t show at the next officers‘ meeting. ”I was entitled to go,“ said Almaguer. ”But you know what? I didn’t feel like going. I‘m not intimidated. It’s just a feeling like I‘ll be ridiculed or something. Like I have no respect anymore.“

District officials insist that beating down Almaguer’s zest to participate was not the goal, and some accuse him of manipulating the situation to his advantage. But at the very least, the district‘s Alexander concedes, there was an overreaction. Which resulted in one more unnecessary and unflattering image of L.A. Unified.

Dennis Dockstader contributed to this article.


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