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Charter Teachers Face Choice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Third-grade teacher Emilia Ortiz took a leave from her secure job with the Los Angeles Unified School District five years ago to design the school of her dreams--one free of picky bureaucrats and onerous rules.

Ortiz and more than a dozen others helped create the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, the first of five so-called independent charter schools so radical in their approach that they govern their own finances, as well as curricula, free of district control.

But now, because of a provision in their union contract, Ortiz and others who gave life to the charter movement may be leaving as they face an unwelcome choice between their schools and financial security.

The leaves of absences they were granted so they could embark on their experiment are drawing to a close, and the teachers must decide whether to quit the district or the charter schools they have come to cherish. If they choose to stay with their schools, they will be giving up seniority, tenure and the lifetime health benefits provided by the school district.

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The teachers are not the only ones approaching a turning point. Vaughn is among a handful of charter schools preparing for five-year reviews by the Los Angeles Board of Education to determine whether they stay open--in the case of Vaughn and nearby Fenton Avenue Charter School, as early as next spring.

The looming reviews underscore the precarious toehold of the independent charter schools, which some fear could be compromised without the corps of teachers who founded them.

At Vaughn, a nationally acclaimed campus that recently received the national Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education for excellence, nearly one-third of the 66 staff members will face the decision in April of whether to stay or leave. Half of Vaughn’s teachers have been hired from outside the Los Angeles school district.

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“We’ve been there for the children, but if we stay, we have everything to lose,” said Ortiz, 41, a 16-year L.A. Unified veteran whose health benefits cover her husband and three children, two of whom attend Vaughn. “I can’t gamble with my future.”

Vaughn Principal Yvonne Chan worries about losing her most seasoned teachers and whether their departures would threaten the reforms they helped inspire.

“It will affect my student achievement if I am unable to recruit equally experienced teachers,” said Chan, adding that she intends to resign and remain at Vaughn rather than return to the district. “I am going to do my best to make sure we don’t replace wonderful veteran teachers with newcomers.”

The dilemma centers around the nature of independent charter schools, which operate like mini-districts free of most state education codes and L.A. Unified policies. The schools handle their own finances, adopt their own curricula and hire and fire teachers at their discretion.

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By contrast, the school district’s 10 “dependent” charter schools maintain closer ties to the district. Although having the freedom to design their own curricula, they observe many L.A. Unified policies and employ its teachers, who remain on the district’s payroll.

The leaves of absences for teachers at the independent charter schools, negotiated in 1993 just before the first such campuses opened, were meant to serve two main purposes. The first was to provide a safety net for the teachers in case their schools failed. At least two teachers at the Edutrain Charter School in downtown Los Angeles were able to return to the district after the school was closed by the Board of Education in 1994 amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

The other reason for the leaves--aimed at creating parity with the majority of district teachers--was to limit the amount of time the independent charter teachers could work for a non-district school, in some cases drawing higher salaries while reaping L.A. Unified benefits.

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The lengths of the leaves were set to coincide with the five-year terms of the charter schools themselves, which are preparing for reviews to determine whether they stay open.

“We figured employees would have plenty of time to decide whether they wanted to remain with the schools,” said Joe Rao, the school district’s administrative coordinator for charter schools. “Teachers should know after five years whether they want to stay in that job or not.”

Some wonder whether the union and the district, both leery of the charter reform movement for different reasons, had other motives in mind.

“It could well have been a time-delayed hand grenade,” one source said in reference to the union, United Teachers-Los Angeles. “If you were really trying to make charter schools work, you wouldn’t build in things that would cause people to leave.”

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Union officials, who have publicly voiced concerns about the use of non-L.A. Unified teachers in charter schools and whether the rights of teachers are fully protected, denied any ulterior motives.

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“I never heard any overwhelming consensus about ‘Let’s do something to stick it to them so they will lose their people and make it harder to be successful,’ ” said Sam Kresner, who served as United Teacher-Los Angeles’ chief negotiator on the 1993 contract. “Obviously, I am sure there were individuals who felt that way, but as a discussion item I did not see it. Nobody thought there was a way to kill charter schools by doing this.”

Rao, speaking for the district, agreed. “There was no poison pill,” he said.

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Teachers at Vaughn say they were aware of the five-year provision when they signed on but still believed that they would be able to stay at their schools indefinitely.

“If you were going to extend the charter, why wouldn’t you extend the charter leaves?” asked Vaughn teacher Carol Howard. “I think we all had that in the back of our minds.”

The teachers are lobbying district and union officials for an immediate one-year extension and amended contracts so they can remain as long as the charter schools are open.

Union officials say the teachers must present a formal motion before the union’s house of representatives before action can be taken. District officials say they are open to a short extension.

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“It’s a negotiable item,” said school board President Julie Korenstein. “I am certainly open to having the discussion.”

Some teachers and principals, like Chan, already have decided to resign from the district, saying they are willing to forgo their benefits to continue their reforms.

“I was a part of the beginning dream about bringing dramatic changes at an urban school,” said Fenton Avenue teacher Jeanette Focosi, 50, who has spent 26 years in L.A. Unified and lives in Pacoima near Fenton. “I’ve seen the empowerment of the teachers and the parents. It’s been a really exciting process. I don’t want to leave.”

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Still, Focosi, one of 39 Fenton staff members facing the same decision, admits that her choice has been unsettling.

“I feel like I am taking a risk,” she said. “I’m hoping it will be worth it. It’s a little scary.”

At the Accelerated School near USC in South Los Angeles, the two co-directors already have decided to resign from the district even though their charter does not come up for renewal until 1999.

Kevin Sved and Johnathan Williams say they want to send a message to their students and staff.

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“At this school, we are about the business of taking the necessary risks in order to bring about change,” Williams said. “You can’t sit on the fence and say, ‘I’m changing.’ If you believe in the charter you have created, you will take steps to move forward. We are looking at being judged based on our actions.”

Williams and Sved said the school has established an account to pay for lifetime health benefits for its employees. “I don’t think there’s anything the district can offer that we can’t create ourselves,” Sved said.

Administrators at Vaughn and Fenton also are looking into retirement health benefits for their employees to match what the school district offers. Although some teachers at both schools say they intend to remain, not even the promise of lifetime health coverage can persuade some of their colleagues.

“If for whatever reason the charter is pulled, I would have to start almost all over again [at the school district],” Ortiz said. “I don’t think I can stay around and see what happens.”

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