For months, parents on a Los Angeles Unified School District advisory council have disagreed over whether their meetings should be conducted in Spanish or English. Such arguments became so abusive that district officials canceled meetings for two months and brought in dispute-resolution specialists and mental-health counselors.
But Friday morning’s gathering of the District Advisory Council proved dysfunctional in any language.
By one vote, parents censured their own chairman for alleged bad behavior, leading to a walkout of most Spanish-speakers. The rebuked chairman, Roberto Fonseca, followed them out of the room. Most voting for the censure were African American, adding racial overtones to the back-and-forth hectoring.
Friday’s dispute, at the district’s downtown Parent Community Services Branch, was the latest in a year of acrimony at the council, which was elected by parents at schools throughout the district. They offer advice on and oversight of the expenditure of $385 million on federally funded programs for students from poor families.
The goings-on raise another round of questions about parent participation in the nation’s second-largest school system, which has been repeatedly criticized by auditors for inconsistent and ineffective parent involvement and outreach. Critics say the district rarely seeks true parental input and instead uses parents to rubber-stamp budgets and programs. District officials insist they are determined to change this perception and are making progress.
Friday’s chaos had been building since February, when Fonseca, who is bilingual, started to give his chairman’s report in Spanish. Some in the audience objected; arguments and recriminations ensued, and school police rushed over amid concerns that a fistfight would break out, witnesses said.
Police have been present ever since, and on Friday, they escorted several parents outside for what one administrator termed a “timeout.”
After the February dispute over language, the district canceled March and April meetings, using the time to develop a Code of Civility, which reads almost like the rules in some classrooms: “Treat one another with respect, without ridicule or criticism. . . . Listen attentively while others are speaking. . . . Under no circumstances, threaten or engage in any verbal or physical attack on another individual.”
There was some resistance to this code, because parents had not approved it themselves, district staff said.
When meetings resumed, parents set up a bylaws subcommittee to take on language and other matters. The current bylaws stipulate that parent meetings across the district must be held in English. A school-district lawyer, however, concluded that this rule is illegal and impractical. Many parents serving on local school councils don’t speak English. Some meetings consist entirely of Spanish-speakers in a district where more than 266,000 students (and probably many more parents) are English-learners out of a student population of about 694,000.
The bylaws committee never completed its full review but had tentatively decided to leave the English rule in place. District staff, in turn, notified schools and offices that the English rule would not be enforced.
When participants on the advisory council aren’t at odds, meetings can be a model of bilingualism. When someone speaks in Spanish, English speakers put translation headsets to their ears and vice versa. And many Latino participants do speak English. The council united to oppose a recent cut in district translation services, a position that Fonseca politely announced to the Board of Education.
Latinos appear to hold the majority of council seats, although African Americans are well represented. A handful of seats are occupied by people of other ethnicities. The council has 63 members, but it will have more than 100 after local elections are complete.
Some observers have described the battle over language as a stand-in for a larger dispute. Federal Title 1 funding started during the civil rights era largely as a mechanism to help impoverished blacks who occupied vast swaths of South Los Angeles. The federal money has yet to eliminate low-academic achievement among African Americans.
But Latinos now have larger numbers in many formerly black-majority schools. And Latino parents are not content to oversee only those funds set aside for English-learners -- these are generally much smaller pots of money than the federal poverty-relief dollars.
Still, the mini-wars at the advisory committee may have more to do with difficult personalities and in-room ethnic tensions than citywide racial politics or competition over resources, others said. Fonseca, in particular, has been a polarizing figure, although on Friday he kept his cool initially, when a black woman walked up to the podium and shouted in his face: “You are totally out of order!”
Later, though, on one motion, an impatient Fonseca tried to shut down public comment. “I will not allow members of the public to speak,” he said.
Chris Downing, an administrator with the parent branch, intervened, as he frequently has: “The chairperson does not have the right to violate the law.” Downing then turned to the unruly audience: “Raise your hand if you want to have a nice calm meeting. . . . Take a deep breath.”
Later, Fonseca ruled that a two-thirds vote would be needed to censure him. The district’s lawyer, John Walsh, disagreed, but Fonseca spoke out again and again: “Two-thirds! Two-thirds! Two-thirds!”
The resolution stated in part that Fonseca “recognized only those who upheld his views and denied the opposition the right to speak.”
Those who walked out included Guadalupe Aguiar, one of the parents who felt that Fonseca was treated unfairly, especially because Friday was the last meeting before new elections. She added that she considers it racist when parents are told that, in America, they have to speak English.
In some respects, though, Aguiar spoke for a clear majority of parents. “I am here to bring information to my school,” she said in Spanish. “So far, I have not brought anything. It was the same thing last year and the year before. . . . Your children are failing just as mine are.”