The Los Angeles Board of Education voted Tuesday to turn over one of the city’s most troubled high schools to a charter school organization, marking the first time an outside group will run a traditional public school in Los Angeles.
Leaders of the teachers union said they would file a grievance to block the transfer on grounds that the decision violates the teachers’ labor agreement and state law.
The board’s 5-2 decision to hand control to Green Dot Public Schools in the fall of 2008 followed an impassioned debate among board members, supporters and opponents that lasted more than three hours.
“Today is about historic accountability,” said Bruce Smith, an English teacher at Locke who gathered signatures for the Green Dot petition. “Finally a day of reckoning has come. . . . Real change is coming to Locke High School.”
On another issue that has pitted the teachers union against district officials -- a new computerized payroll system beset for months with problems -- the board voted to bring in an outside firm to help fix the so-far intractable technical foul-ups. The one-year contract, for up to $10 million, is the latest move by district leaders desperate to end a debacle that has left thousands of teachers and other employees underpaid, overpaid or unpaid. This month, 3,826 teachers and other staff had paycheck problems, a total similar to last month’s. Citing teacher distrust in the new system, district officials also said they have postponed a plan to recoup nearly $45 million in overpayments.
But it was the future of Locke that dominated the board’s deliberations.
Locke ranks among the lowest-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and in the state. In 2005, 332 students graduated from a class that, as ninth-graders, had 1,318. Only 143 students qualified for admission to the University of California and California State University systems.
For years, the school has failed to meet state performance benchmarks, with most students posting scores of “below basic” or “far below basic” on standardized tests.
“I came to a point at which I said if we have to make a deal with the devil to change our situation, I’m ready to,” said Arturo Ybarra, head of the Watts/Century Latino Organization, an area advocacy group, adding that he had taken his daughter out of Locke because he considered it unsafe. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with the devil to do that.”
Opponents sounded as though they weren’t so sure.
“It’s probably the voucher in disguise,” said board member Julie Korenstein, referring to the use of government-funded vouchers to pay for private schools. Vouchers are legal in some places, but not in California.
Korenstein, the most loyal ally of United Teachers Los Angeles on the board, voted against the proposal, along with board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. Both expressed concerns about Green Dot’s ability to improve instruction at a large, traditional campus like Locke. Green Dot’s 10 small schools typically outperform surrounding public schools, although scores at three of the organization’s five older schools dipped this year.
“My greatest fear is that we simply give away our children,” said Korenstein, her voice quivering. “They are not dispensable, they are not guinea pigs. . . . We have a board that may or may not have a clue about what they are doing.”
Charters are public schools run independently of school districts. They are free from some traditional constraints, including collective-bargaining agreements. Unlike most charters, Green Dot is unionized, although not by UTLA, which argues that it must be the union at Locke.
Green Dot founder Steve Barr implored the board to approve the charter petition.
“We have a crisis in the public education system,” Barr said. “It’s all of our faults, and we all have to pull together to fix this.”
Under the plan, Green Dot will divide Locke into small schools of about 500 students. Its model is based on basic tenets such as giving teachers and principals authority over budget, curriculum and work rules, requiring parent involvement and keeping schools open later. Details of the Locke plan are still being negotiated, with Green Dot demanding, for example, at least $9,000 per student -- substantially more than for a typical charter.
The battle over Locke has boiled since early May, when Green Dot officials announced they had signatures of interest from a majority of tenured Locke teachers, clearing the major legal hurdle toward a takeover.
In the weeks that followed, union and district officials met with the faculty, presenting alternate views and proposals. They pointed out that Green Dot would be under no obligation to retain current teachers. Enough employees rescinded their signatures to leave the petition short of the required 50%. Because of that, district staff did not bring the petition before the board for possible approval. But two weeks ago, a new board majority indicated it would support Green Dot.
The validity of the signatures, however, continued to cloud the issue. At Tuesday’s meeting, Barr and senior district officials told board members that Green Dot had resubmitted letters showing that 38 of 71 tenured teachers had reaffirmed their support, pushing Green Dot safely over the threshold. Union officials countered that a poll taken Friday tallied a majority of teachers opposed to the plan.
Teachers union officials said the process remained flawed and needed to be started over after Locke’s faculty had an opportunity to review and discuss the full, final charter petition as well as the proposed contract with L.A. Unified.
State law and the union bargaining agreement require nothing less, said UTLA President A.J. Duffy. “All we are asking is that this process be done properly according to the contract and to the law,” Duffy said. “Don’t break the law.”
A district lawyer assured the board that the charter petition was legal.