L.A. Unified: the school bully

BRUCE WILLIAM SMITH teaches English at Locke High School.

IAM ONE OF THE LEADERS of the teacher revolt at Locke High School. Locke was, for many years, the ashcan of the Los Angeles Unified School District, mismanaged in every way. Things have improved here, but not enough, and efforts to do more have been frustrated by district interference.

Now, after a majority of teachers expressed a desire to break away from the LAUSD, the district has revealed to everyone how little regard it has for teachers, majority rule or state law.

Conflict, controversy, despondency — all are present in full measure these days at Locke, a 2,500-student campus in Watts, as we wrestle with the future of the school. Green Dot Public Schools, the most prominent charter school operator in Southern California, negotiated with the district for months about the fate of Locke. But then, on April 13, the Los Angeles Board of Education — showing little concern for our current students and teachers — approved eight Green Dot start-up schools for the surrounding neighborhood, which would certainly bleed Locke dry.

But another option emerged a couple of weeks later: Alain Leroy Locke Charter High School. This would keep the charters on our campus but under a Green Dot umbrella, funded directly by the state. Founder Steve Barr and Green Dot fully realize what many teachers here have long known: The only satisfactory solution is to save Locke but remove it from LAUSD control.

To that end, I and other teachers last month circulated a petition that documented our support for the new Green Dot plan. A majority of our tenured teachers — 41 out of 73 — signed it. On May 8, the day we finished collecting signatures, Principal Frank Wells was escorted off campus by an LAUSD official. Three days later, when the petition was filed with the district, I was relieved of all my non-teaching duties (coordinating assessments and writing our school improvement plan) and was assigned to supervising our legion of rebellious, tardy students. I lost my summer employment too, and thousands of dollars in pay.

The district's disinformation campaign was launched the next week. We had a mandatory after-school meeting, at which representatives from the LAUSD and the teachers union attacked the plan for three hours. Green Dot was barred from participating. Mat Taylor, the United Teachers Los Angeles rep from Fremont High School, told our faculty: "You fired yourselves when you signed that petition." Others said that Green Dot offered no healthcare benefits (a falsehood retracted after I objected), that a continual stream of unhappy Green Dot teachers reapply to the LAUSD and other distortions.

After all that, some teachers withdrew their signatures.

In the following week, six hours of meetings (time originally scheduled to prepare for reaccreditation) were spent hearing about five new rival proposals for Locke's future — as if we'd never made a choice. An anti-Green Dot petition was circulated persistently until, having cajoled, confused and intimidated our teachers, the LAUSD was satisfied: 17 had rescinded their signatures.

When the LAUSD threw out our charter petition, district officials, including Supt. David L. Brewer, insisted that no one was pressured or coerced. This simply strains credulity.

The LAUSD has proved again and again that it can't manage urban high schools. Test scores are low. Student attendance is low and declining. Parents have no confidence that they're sending their kids to safe campuses. There's massive teacher and administrative turnover, so improvement plans are drawn from scratch year after year.

Among the attacks launched against Green Dot is that the charter plan is all about money. Well, that's true. This is about money. If Locke — and then maybe Santee or Taft, where teachers are also talking to Green Dot — withdraw from the LAUSD, district enrollment will continue to decline. Funding is based on enrollment, so if that keeps dropping, then how will the district pay for its bloated bureaucracy?

The LAUSD doesn't have the right to summarily reject our charter. State law is clear: A petition can be discarded by the school board only if it "did not contain the requisite number of signatures at the time of its submission to a school district." On May 11, the date in question, ours did. By acting as if our petition never happened, the LAUSD keeps it from reaching the Los Angeles Board of Education. Without a board vote, the LAUSD's reasoning goes, a rejection can't even be appealed to the county or state boards of education.

This is a shameless ploy by a desperate district. Like any party to a dispute, we are entitled to a fair hearing before an impartial body. The district bureaucrats should let the members of the newly elected Board of Education, their new bosses, consider and vote on Locke's charter. If the LAUSD is to have any credibility in educating our young people about open, democratic government and fair play, it must.

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