Headway for Brewer on 2 fronts
School reform moved on two fronts Tuesday as the Los Angeles Board of Education approved a plan for its 34 lowest-performing schools and officials compromised on which of these campuses will join the mayor’s effort to turn around troubled schools.
Both matters have dragged out contentiously in recent weeks. The 34-school plan -- a centerpiece for Supt. David L. Brewer -- has been delayed repeatedly and criticized in many quarters. At a three-hour meeting, the fault-finding continued unabated, but in the end, Brewer won a unanimous vote that came with a proviso to return with improvements and more details.
He also hammered out a compromise to another developing problem, the fate of two schools that may or may not have voted last week to enter the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a high-profile initiative headed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The tentative deal reached with the teachers union would allow additional voting at two high schools, the Santee Education Complex south of downtown and Jordan in Watts. The dilemma involved a dispute over voting rules. One reading gave the mayor a win at both schools, the other a loss.
Brewer’s plan for the 17 high schools and 17 middle schools mandates that they adopt a more detailed curriculum that is aligned to state standards, provide more staff training and encourage parental involvement. The schools will also develop a clear and public reform plan including transparent accountability, such as the posting of test scores, attendance, dropout rates and other measures. Responsibility will fall mainly on school principals and their supervisors.
The 34 schools, which serve about 98,000 students, have not significantly improved their state and federal test scores. Between 42% and 75% of students in the high schools and 46% to 65% in the middle schools scored “below basic” on state standardized tests last year.
The plan, using funding from existing resources, will cost about $4.6 million this year.
A small parade of critics was led by A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, who called the plan too centralized, robbing teachers of creativity.
Several board members also expressed strong reservations about the curriculum demands and the posting of test scores.
“Trying to bring up test scores by embarrassing schools -- I don’t think that works,” said Julie Korenstein.
Yolie Flores Aguilar said she wanted more specifics on helping English learners and the disabled. She also said, “There’s no accountability, top to bottom.”
Brewer urged the board to approve the plan so he can present it to the state Board of Education in January. Under federal law, that body must decide how it will intervene in L.A. Unified and 98 other lagging California school districts.
When the vote went his way, Brewer smiled and clapped. “It is not a plan written in stone; it is a living document,” he said.
Brewer’s plan, which will affect thousands more students than Villaraigosa’s, has been completely overshadowed in recent weeks by the mayor’s effort.
Parents and teachers voted separately at seven schools last week on joining the mayor. The threshold for parents was a majority of whoever voted. Less than 10% did, but they overwhelmingly favored going with Villaraigosa, who appeared at school meetings pledging financial support and self-governance.
The mayor’s team contended that for teachers too, Villaraigosa needed only a majority of whoever voted. And they argued that wording they helped to insert in official election rules allowed no other interpretation. But this provision conflicted directly with an agreement made between the school district and the teachers union.
A couple of months earlier, district officials had agreed to let the union set the threshold, and the union’s House of Representatives voted to require a majority of all bargaining-unit members at a school, regardless of whether they voted or not. Many teachers wanted an even higher threshold.
Union leaders said they were not aware of any subsequent rule change; nor was Kathi Littmann, head of the district’s Innovation Division, who was running the election. But the mayor’s office was adamant, pointing to Innovation’s own six-page list of rules. On that basis, the mayor claimed a clean sweep, because more teachers voted yes than no at every school. But it was less than a majority of eligible voters at Santee and Jordan. The other high school, Roosevelt, easily cleared all hurdles.
Brewer concluded late last week that Jordan High would join the mayor, but he backtracked this week. He ultimately agreed Tuesday to allow 19 UTLA members who did not vote to get another chance.
“In Jordan’s case, there was confusion as to what the vote rules should have been,” Brewer said in an interview.
UTLA’s Duffy said he sought a solution driven by teachers at each school. He added that teachers at Jordan would be reaching a final decision about what to do by this morning.
The compromise also allows an additional opportunity to vote in early January for teachers who were on vacation at Santee, a year-round school. The district justifies the second chance on grounds that these teachers lacked an opportunity to attend an information session during work hours.
The union shouldn’t make deals to help the mayor get a second opportunity, said Becki Robinson, who was among those supporting a threshold higher than the one that prevailed.
“Off-track teachers were given the chance to vote by e-mail and to fax in ballots,” Robinson said. “The rules at Santee and Jordan should be the same as for everybody else. Roosevelt is also a year-round school. . . . If they think they need to change the rules, then everybody needs to vote again.”
The mayor’s office endorsed the idea of additional voting.
There’s a chance things will get messier still. The administrators union obtained staff totals that, if accurate, would put the mayor in the loss column at two Watts middle schools, Markham and Gompers. These numbers were provided to that union late last week by the district’s Human Resources department.
Littmann questions their accuracy. She obtained different figures -- that narrowly preserve the mayor’s victory at these two other schools -- the same day from Human Resources. On Tuesday, in response to a request for records, the district provided still different totals.