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Mayor Takes Case to Teachers

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a passionate pitch for the support of teachers union activists Sunday, as his plan to assume some control of the Los Angeles Unified School District moves forward amid grumbling from some union members.

Speaking before a ballroom packed with hundreds of union members at United Teachers Los Angeles’ annual leadership conference, Villaraigosa was at first greeted with a few catcalls and boos. But in the end, his 20-minute talk drew an ovation.

“Come and sit up here, so I can see you,” he said, beckoning to his critics in the crowd like a no-nonsense teacher. His promise to answer questions at a meeting following his speech quieted the group.

His speech focused less on his current proposal than his long history of support for Los Angeles teachers. He cited his work as a union organizer during UTLA’s 1989 strike and as an advocate for teachers in district disciplinary hearings, as well as as a state legislator who fought private school vouchers and teacher merit pay -- both opposed by the union.

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“I stood with you every single time you asked for a decent wage, for good benefits,” he reminded the crowd.

But while Villaraigosa the politician has consistently been supported by the union -- financially and philosophically -- Villaraigosa the education guru has not fared quite as well. The mayor’s initial plan to assume total control of the Los Angeles Unified School District was opposed by UTLA and the California Teachers Assn., which forced him into a power-sharing compromise.

That deal -- struck in closed-door negotiations with top union leaders -- has angered some UTLA members, who have petitioned for a referendum to gauge rank-and-file support.

The legislation passed a key hurdle last week when it passed 9 to 2 in the Senate Appropriations Committee. It is expected to be considered by the full Senate as early as Tuesday, after which it will go to the Assembly. Lawmakers and political analysts widely expect it to be approved, and the governor has pledged to sign it.

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Villaraigosa does not need the support of the rank-and-file for his plan to go forward; the union’s governing board has approved it. But he will need the support of teachers to make it work, and the skepticism of classroom veterans may be a substantial hurdle.

Some union members were rankled that they didn’t have more of a say in the agreement and believe it does not go far enough in sharing power with teachers, parents and community members.

At the weekend conference, UTLA leaders suggested that the plan has potential to improve a district that has made some strides -- building new schools and raising elementary test scores -- but has been unable to lower dropout rates, reduce teacher turnover or close an achievement gap that strands black and Latino students.

Villaraigosa intends to assume responsibility for about 40 of the district’s worst schools and grant teachers more say in their operation.

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Success would provide “a beachhead and a model ... that could bolster our contract demands and be used at the bargaining table as a wedge for other teachers” across the district to demand similar power-sharing arrangements, UTLA’s director of special projects, Joel Jordan, told the crowd.

Jordan predicted that Villaraigosa’s involvement would draw more private funds to the cash-strapped district -- allowing for smaller class sizes and better-equipped classrooms -- and would draw more social services to campuses to aid struggling families.

But more than two dozen union members signed up to question Villaraigosa after his speech. They had a laundry list of concerns -- including bilingual and special education, gay and lesbian students, and military recruitment on campus -- that they want the legislation to address.

Villaraigosa borrowed from traditional union rhetoric in his responses, lambasting the district’s “bloated bureaucracy” and vowing to “chop from the top.” He pledged to launch an independent audit -- a long-standing UTLA demand -- to “look at where the fat is and redirect those dollars to the classroom.”

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But the mayor also made clear that he differs from the union on some key issues.

He favors the creation of more charter schools, which the union has opposed because many do not require their teachers to join the union. He wants a stronger “peer review and assistance program” to assist struggling teachers and weed out incompetent ones.

Some teachers complained that others before Villaraigosa have tried to reform the district with disappointing results.

“Reform has come and gone in all kind of forms over the years and it just keeps getting worse,” Glenwood Elementary kindergarten teacher Janette Gembitz told Villaraigosa.

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Gembitz expects to begin the semester next month on her Sunland campus with 34 students and no classroom aide for the first time in her 20-year career, she said.

“How are you going to help me? How is this going to improve my life?”

Others said they are staking their support not on the specifics of the plan, but on the substance of the man.

“I’m taking a leap of faith because of who you are,” Irving Middle School’s Howard Bransky told Villaraigosa. A teacher for 30 years and member of UTLA’s board of directors, Bransky said the mayor has a rare combination of charisma, popularity and stature to make reform work.

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“I’m going to try to convince other teachers to take that leap of faith,” Bransky said as Villaraigosa huddled with dozens of teachers -- many passing their cellphones around so friends could snap photos of them with the mayor. “Because when is this kind of opportunity going to come along again?”


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