L.A. school board expanding role beyond education into 'social justice'

A Central Valley farmworker dispute isn't LAUSD's business, unless it buys from the company

First it was providing free legal help to undocumented students. Then it was a resolution chiding a Central Valley fruit grower for alleged unfair labor practices. The Los Angeles Unified school board is on a new “social justice” tack these days of getting involved in matters that don’t fall within the purview of educating students well. And the public can expect to see a lot more of it.

At least this is one issue that isn’t defined by the old reform-versus-union alliances. Tamar Galatzan was the only board member to vote against the legal help, and she abstained on the farm issue, while her usual reform ally Monica Garcia voted for both. George McKenna raised questions about the legal help, pointing out that there are all kinds of students with all kinds of legal needs, so why was the district helping only those with a certain type of issue? He eventually went along with it, though.

The Times editorial board came out against the legal plan, which allows district lawyers to offer, on a voluntary basis, pro bono legal help to students who are unaccompanied minors and have immigration hearings pending; at this point, these would almost certainly be the youngsters who arrived at the border by the tens of thousands last year, seeking asylum from dangerous, potentially life-threatening violence in their homelands. The idea is for the work to be done on their own time, but the district set itself up as the legal-service agency and allows its lawyers to use regular work hours for the immigration help, as long as they get their regular work done.

But that sounds like a lot of fungible hours, with the potential for most or all of this work to be done during regular work. But the bigger issue, the editorial board said, is that even though it’s laudable for attorneys to do pro bono immigration work, the district shouldn’t be the agency through which it’s done. There are plenty of legal agencies through which they could offer their time.

The farm matter is, in its way, a much odder subject for the board to tackle. According to the resolution passed by the board — as well as other reports — Gerawan Farming has been far from an upstanding party in labor negotiations. The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board has gotten involved. But although the farm operator has had some minor contracts with the district in the past, it doesn’t have one now and there isn’t one on the horizon.

In a recent conversation, board member Steve Zimmer, who authored the Gerawan resolution, told me these kinds of issues would become a more common facet of board business. The board is trying to look beyond the classroom at the larger social issues that affect students.

To a certain extent, that makes sense. We feed children at school who can’t afford their own breakfast and lunch, for example, mostly because no respectable society would let children go hungry, but also because malnourished, empty-bellied children are not going to do well in their studies. It’s impossible, really, to fully divorce school performance from bigger issues of neighborhood crime, entrenched poverty and other social ills. If we want to improve educational achievement, that sometimes means worrying about whether students have dental care — dental issues are one of the biggest reasons for lost school days — or eyeglasses so they can read.

And if the board wants to ensure that it doesn’t buy from farms and other food producers that don’t treat their employees well, or follow proper procedures involving the environment and the wholesome nature of food, more power to it. Large public agencies should be leaders in sourcing their purchases responsibly.

That’s different from the section in the resolution calling on Gerawan Farming to do the right thing labor-wise. Gerawan’s labor practices are none of the board’s business except to the extent that it buys food from the company — which it doesn’t. It has every right not to contract with a farm that doesn’t meet with its approval.

But the board needs to think carefully about when it is improving its ability to offer a better educational experience for its students, and when it’s simply meddling in matters that aren’t its business. That was Galatzan’s point in abstaining on the measure. More board members should be thinking that way, bringing up common-sense questions about what rightly constitutes the business of the school board.

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