Locke High seeks to leave district

Times Staff Writer

Challenging the balance of power in the city’s public school system, a leading charter school organization is poised to wrest control of a failing high school from the elected Los Angeles Board of Education.

Green Dot Public Schools, which has clashed frequently with the board in its aggressive push to expand, has quietly overseen the collection of signatures of support from a majority of the tenured teachers at Locke High School -- clearing the major legal hurdle toward converting the campus into a series of charter schools.

Underscoring the anxiety and anger the plan is unleashing within the district, Locke Principal Frank Wells was escorted off campus and relieved of his duties late Tuesday afternoon pending the outcome of a district investigation into allegations that Wells allowed teachers to leave their classrooms to collect and sign petitions.


Wells called the charges “a total fabrication,” saying no classes were disrupted as teachers signed and collected signatures during non-class time. Teachers who helped collect signatures supported Wells’ version of events.

Under Green Dot’s proposal, which because of state law the Los Angeles school board would appear to have little choice but to approve, the 2,800-student Watts campus would be divided into 10 small Green Dot schools beginning in fall 2008.

“It’s a leap of faith, but if you believe in this partnership between Green Dot and Locke teachers, then you believe that we are trying to change education in Los Angeles by turning more attention to students’ needs and empowering teachers,” said Bruce Smith, an English teacher at the school.

Amid dozens of poor-performing middle and high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Locke has long languished as one of the worst. At least one of every two students drops out, while the majority who remain score at or near the bottom on standardized tests.

More than half of the school’s 73 tenured teachers signed petitions this week expressing interest in converting Locke into Green Dot charters. Once verified, the petitions -- copies of which were obtained by The Times and checked against a roster of the Locke faculty -- would legally allow Green Dot to petition the board for control of the school. Many un-tenured teachers also signed the petitions.

With school district and union leaders quickly catching wind of the hostile-takeover plan and scrambling to counter it with a reform plan of their own, Green Dot founder Steve Barr returned early from a conference in New Orleans to hold a news conference this morning with Locke teachers and parents outside the school.


Charter schools are publicly funded but run independently, outside many of the regulations and restrictions of school districts. In exchange for the freedom to innovate in the classroom, charters are expected to improve student performance and serve as incubators for school reform. Most charters in California are start-ups that typically must rent or buy classroom space, but state law also allows for the less common conversion process.

Unlike the handful of other schools that converted to charters in L.A. Unified, Green Dot’s gambit, if successful, would mark the first time an outside charter group organized a break from the district.

And Green Dot is proposing a clean break.

The group’s charter petition -- a copy of which was provided to The Times and which must be voted on by the seven-member school board -- calls for Green Dot to receive its funding directly from the state, instead of allowing it to first pass through district coffers. Teachers who wish to remain at the deeply troubled school would have to re-apply for their jobs to principals hired by Green Dot. The extensive labor agreement negotiated by the district’s teachers union would also be thrown out, as Locke teachers would work under the shorter, simpler pact signed by Green Dot’s union.

Indeed, the plan promises to escalate the long-running power struggle that has pitted the fast growing Green Dot against the school board and the union, United Teachers Los Angeles -- both of which have much to lose.

In addition to losing about $19 million in state funds that the district receives each year for Locke students, the school’s conversion could serve as a serious setback to the school board as it scrambles to prove that it can put forth innovative reforms and drive improvements itself at dozens of low-performing schools.

Board members are particularly sensitive to criticism in light of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s ongoing efforts to gain some control of the district, during which he has publicly pounded board members -- and the bureaucracy they oversee -- with the criticism that they are resistant to change.

A Locke takeover would also complicate matters for Supt. David L. Brewer, who is still trying to assert his authority over the nation’s second-largest district since being hired late last year. Until last month, Brewer and board President Marlene Canter were trying to strike a deal with Barr over Locke, but talks broke down over Barr’s rejection of Brewer’s demand that teachers be district employees, subject to the UTLA contract.

“Why would we dilute something that is working?” Barr said in an interview, referring to the promising early results his other schools have posted. “Every conversation I had with the superintendent, it was, ‘Have you talked to the union?’ Who runs this district: the superintendent or the union?”

Brewer expressed frustration that Barr had “moved unilaterally without finishing that discussion.” He and Canter expressed hope that in coming months the district would launch an “innovation division” to help groups like Green Dot implement their reform plans in district schools, while keeping them part of the district.

For their part, union officials stand to lose more than just the dues-paying members who bolt to Green Dot. Union leaders have been some of the harshest critics of the charter movement in Los Angeles, and of Green Dot in particular. The support for Green Dot by rank-and-file Locke teachers could undermine the authority of union leaders and their position as major power brokers in the district -- especially if teachers at other schools follow suit.

“I’m going to urge teachers around the city to rise up and take control of their schools,” said English teacher Smith, who plans to speak at today’s news conference. “You can cross out Locke and put in Roosevelt High, or Dorsey or Crenshaw.”

The decision to remove Wells came days after he visited a Green Dot campus and publicly lashed out at the district, saying it would take “revolutionary” change to improve his school.

Brewer and top officials said Wells’ contract as principal will not be renewed next year because of “leadership problems” during his three years on campus. The allegations surrounding the signatures forced them to remove him immediately, they said.

A.J. Duffy, president of the union, angrily denounced Green Dot’s collection of signatures, saying teachers should have been given a chance to first hear other reform ideas from the union and other groups. He said the union is trying to pull together a counter plan to present to Locke teachers in coming weeks.

“When a staff gets all the information to make a decision ... we would support whatever they want, even if we disagree with it,” he said. “I understand the teachers’ frustrations. The district is not receptive to change and as hard as we have pushed we have not been able to convince them that change is needed. But, I guess they’ve got the message now.”


Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.