The Los Angeles Board of Education signaled its intent Tuesday to enter an agreement that would make Locke High School the first Los Angeles campus managed by an outside charter-school organization.
The decision is especially controversial since numerous teachers withdrew their signatures from a petition calling for the conversion.
The board action, by a 5-2 vote, calls for the Locke petition to come before the school board for an up-or-down vote in two weeks. But if board members were opposed, they could simply have sided with senior school district administrators, who cited the withdrawn signatures as the reason they initially declined to bring the petition before the board.
"I intend to vote for it," board member Richard Vladovic, who represents the Locke area, said in a brief interview. "It has my strong support."
In other action, a divided school board voted 5 to 2 Tuesday evening to extend health benefits to more than 2,300 part-time cafeteria workers at an estimated annual cost of $35.5 million.
The move came over warnings from staff and Supt. David L. Brewer that no money was budgeted to pay for the benefits. Supporters called it a social justice issue; opponents said it was fiscally irresponsible.
The decision on Locke was a clear victory for Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, which is seeking to take over Locke after an aborted try at Jefferson High School. Barr, who has supported Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's school-intervention efforts, runs a group of small L.A.-area charter schools that have posted higher test scores and graduation rates than nearby public schools. His critics contend that he works with a more select -- or at least more motivated -- student body.
"I'm proud of the board and proud of the parents and the teachers of Locke," said Barr after the vote. "When all is said and done, we're going to work together and make Locke a great school. People around the country are going to come to Watts and see what a great urban turnaround school looks like."
Barr stopped short of saying that the charter approval was all but guaranteed: "It seemed like it." In the meantime, he said, "I'm going to the Locke football game on Friday and root them on."
The South Los Angeles school is among the lowest-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2005, there were 332 graduates from a class that, as ninth-graders, had 1,318 students. Only 143 qualified for admission to the University of California system.
The school system on its own isn't ready to offer quick reforms, board member Yolie Flores Aguilar said. "We need to offer that change right now."
Barr is already in discussions with district officials over changes to the Locke petition that would bring it more in line with those at other schools that have converted to charter status. The need to finish those revisions resulted in the delay.
Some L.A. Unified schools, including Granada Hills and Pacific Palisades high schools, have converted to charters, but they are run by teachers, administrators and others. Locke would be the first "conversion charter" to be operated by an outside group, and the first such school for Green Dot.
The board action was cheered by more than 100 Green Dot employees, parents and supporters. But there also were opponents, many of whom wore the bright red T-shirts of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union.
"You are about to give away a public high school campus to a private entity, and it's not right," said Mathew Taylor, a union area director for the part of town that includes Locke.
Charter schools are independently run public schools freed from some rules and constraints that apply to other public schools. Among them: They are not bound by district collective-bargaining agreements. Most charters are nonunion; Barr's are an exception, although his employees are represented by the California Teachers Assn., rather than United Teachers Los Angeles, the exclusive bargaining agent with L.A. Unified. Barr has not ruled out a UTLA-negotiated contract for Locke.
Green Dot shocked district officials in May when it announced that a majority of Locke's tenured teachers had signed petitions in support of a takeover, clearing the major legal barrier to conversion.
District officials countered with promises to teachers of increased authority and reforms if Locke remained within the district. Officials said 18 teachers rescinded their signatures. The tally of charter supporters dwindled to 24, well short of the 37 that would have equaled 50% of the tenured faculty, said Gregory McNair, who heads the district's charter-school division.
"The sales pitch was whether I would like to see changes at Locke," said teacher Jessica Tang, who said she did not understand the petition's ramifications. Tang withdrew her signature.
Political winds shifted in Green Dot's direction with the ascension, in July, of a board majority allied with Villaraigosa, who has said he supports charter schools.
The "no" votes Tuesday were from Julie Korenstein and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. Korenstein sided with teachers who wanted their own ongoing reform efforts to have more time to pan out. She also echoed some union officials, saying that Green Dot should be allowed to bring its charter forward only when it could demonstrate support from 50% of teachers.
"Otherwise there are people at the school who will perceive this as a hostile takeover," Korenstein said.
Board member Tamar Galatzan responded: "You're presuming this isn't 50% of the teachers. That's something we disagree on. . . . No court has ruled on that particular issue."
After the board vote, an angry LaMotte said: "It's over. The legalities don't matter."