Alex Caputo-Pearl wins runoff election to head L.A. teachers union

A veteran social studies teacher has defeated incumbent Warren Fletcher in an election to head the union that represents teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system.

Alex Caputo-Pearl received 80% of the votes cast and Fletcher 20%, United Teachers Los Angeles announced Tuesday.

In the vote-by-mail election, 7,235 members cast ballots, fewer than one in four of those eligible to vote. The union has more than 31,000 voting members, including guidance counselors, school psychologists and nurses.

Caputo-Pearl, 45, vowed to make the union a force for advancing education reforms favored by teachers. 

"The union needs to be a real leader in taking control of school improvement and in really working with members and the community around how to improve schools," he said in an interview Tuesday. 

Caputo-Pearl’s positions on issues do not differ substantially from Fletcher’s. Both, for example, oppose using test scores to evaluate teachers. But Caputo-Pearl said his history of activism and community organizing have prepared him for this role.

The result was no surprise because Caputo-Pearl had strongly outpolled Fletcher, 48% to 21%, in the first round of voting in March, when 10 candidates were on the ballot. As the top two finishers, Caputo-Pearl and Fletcher faced off in the runoff.

But Fletcher quickly said he was suspending active campaigning — accepting his challenger’s win as nearly inevitable. Fletcher received slightly fewer total votes in the second round.

Fletcher, 55, said he was advised that he could have won only with a negative campaign, which he said he was unwilling to do.

"Only a fool fights in a burning house," Fletcher said at the time, describing it as important to avoid unnecessary discord “because of the attacks UTLA is under and that our profession is under."

In recent weeks, Fletcher began including Caputo-Pearl in senior-level deliberations in anticipation of a leadership transition. 

Three years ago, Fletcher rode a wave of discontent to defeat a candidate viewed as the favorite of the union establishment. This time, Caputo-Pearl and his "Union Power" slate won districtwide union positions. His team included three incumbents who deserted Fletcher: vice presidents Betty Forrester and Juan Ramirez and treasurer Arlene Inouye.

Two other incumbents, vice president M.J. Roberts and secretary David Lyell, were not on Caputo-Pearl's slate; they lost.

Caputo-Pearl captured the endorsement of 250 campus union representatives. The three-year position pays $101,000 annually.

To some degree, Fletcher was a victim of bad timing. The recession hurt Fletcher and his members, leaving him little alternative but a strategy of trying to limit job losses and salary cuts. Meanwhile, L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy pushed aggressively for his brand of school reform — which included using test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation and limiting traditional job protections to improve the overall quality of the workforce.

Many teachers have complained of ever-increasing demands while their pay declined, class sizes increased and school support services, from counseling to classroom cleaning, diminished.

Fletcher capitalized on this discontent by rallying members to a vote of no confidence in Deasy -- more than 50% of union members took part, with 91% of those opposing the superintendent. But little concrete came of the effort, except that Fletcher and Deasy stopped speaking.

Within the union, Fletcher’s critics accused him of being too isolated within UTLA’s headquarters.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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