Teachers union turns up the heat on district
The group outside Dolores Street Elementary School had eight tents, four Costco pizzas, a rented portable toilet and one goal: getting rid of Principal Anna Barraza.
Nearly 75 teachers, parents and teachers union representatives gathered on the front lawn of the Carson campus late last month, vowing to sleep on the grass to draw attention to allegations of Barraza’s incompetence. They waved signs and spoke to reporters who flocked to the scene, complaining that the principal was uncaring and arrogant.
Barraza denies those claims, which are nearly impossible to prove. Some teachers who have worked with her in the past say the criticisms are unwarranted, and the union for administrators has called her a courageous educational leader.
The situation at Dolores Street highlights the teachers union’s increasingly aggressive tactics against administrators. It was the second time in the last year that United Teachers Los Angeles had organized a campus sleepover, one of a number of protests against principals in Huntington Park and eastern Los Angeles, among other places.
It also shines a rare light on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s habit of moving administrators from campus to campus, seemingly to avoid confrontation with the teachers union or to avoid dealing with controversial employees. Barraza has been assigned to a different campus each of the last three years, and the union held protests outside two of those schools.
Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines acknowledged that rather than document administrators’ problems so they can be disciplined or supported, the district typically reassigns controversial principals. He pledged to end the practice.
“We take the chicken way out. . . . We horse-trade,” he said. “Those days are over.”
Union officials and members say Barraza is a “petty despot” who did not take mediation meetings seriously and didn’t consider their suggestions about the school’s budget. She maintains that she’s a conscientious educator.
Cortines says he has “no idea” whether Barraza is a good principal because there’s very little paperwork in her file about her performance, something he believes is far too common in the nation’s second-largest school district.
Principals, who education experts say are vital to a well-performing school, are supposed to be evaluated every other year.
“It is my belief -- and I have some evidence -- that instead of writing people up and being very succinct, that people have made deals,” said Cortines, who has pushed for greater accountability districtwide. He said he was aware that the union was planning more protests against Barraza but vowed that the district would not reassign her until she and the school had been thoroughly evaluated, a process he said could take less than an academic year.
No one denies that Dolores Street needs to improve. The school scored 737 on the latest state Academic Performance Index, a 21-point drop from the year before. The state’s target score is 800.
Barraza went to the school with high hopes, even though the teachers union had held protests at her last posting at Dena Elementary in Boyle Heights the year before.
Barraza had been a principal for four years, including a six-month stint at Charles White Elementary near MacArthur Park, where the staff threw her a going-away party at a local Mexican restaurant.
“She was a hands-on lady,” said Thom Shelden, a fourth-grade teacher at White who also served as the campus’ union representative. “She visited classrooms. She made sure teachers followed the lesson plan. She made a real difference.”
Shelden said union officials warned him that Barraza was ineffective. “They wanted me to jump on her . . . but it turns out, when you leave her alone, she’s quite effective.”
But Barraza apparently had trouble with her staff at her next assignment, Dena Elementary.
Barraza said in an interview that she wasn’t sure why she drew the union’s ire there, but that she suspects she was targeted after she declined to hire an academic coordinator with union ties.
At the end of the year, Barraza said she was told by the local superintendent, Carmen Schroeder, that she would be reassigned. Barraza suspects Schroeder caved in to union pressure; Schroeder did not return calls for comment.
Barraza said she was so tired of the situation that she asked to be temporarily reassigned to a desk job away from schools and was surprised when she was told to report to Dolores Street. “I knew once the union attacks, they keep attacking,” she said.
When Barraza arrived at Dolores Street, she told staff that she planned to visit classrooms frequently and follow district policies closely. But union officials knew about the accusations against her.
“We saw what happened with the other schools and wondered why she came here,” said union organizer Mike Gipson, who is also a Carson city councilman. “You’re supposed to bring someone who’s strong and will not be questioned on the first day of school.”
The district’s apparent unwillingness to resolve the situation doesn’t surprise Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs.
“They’ve taken pains to not deal with the fundamental problems in their midst,” he said.
The situation at Dolores Street quickly escalated. By October, Barraza said, she knew that she was again being targeted by the union. Barraza and other district officials had two mediation meetings with union representatives about her performance but could not reach a solution. And Barraza said she continued to visit classrooms and document teachers who talked on cellphones during class or failed to show up on testing days.
On May 15, in the middle of testing week, six of the 36 teachers were absent, according to Barraza.
“That’s a testing day, a holy day,” she said. “That shouldn’t happen.”
Last month, protesters picketed and then held their sleepover.
Children played tag and napped in sleeping bags while parents and teachers gathered in lawn chairs and chatted in the glare of television reporters’ lights. Many complained that Barraza was inaccessible and wouldn’t listen to their ideas.
“She’s always behind closed doors,” said Ana Gomez, a second-grade teacher.
The next morning, protesters waving signs that read “Save Our Students, Dolores St. United, Will Never Be Divided” greeted Barraza when she drove onto campus.
“I didn’t let it bother me,” Barraza said. “I saw the news. I knew they would be there.”
Michael O’Sullivan, president of the administrators union, noted that Dolores Street’s recently released federal test scores rose and said of Barraza: “She’s an articulate, persistent person who has high personal standards, in our view, and has been subjected to harassment.”
A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, shrugged off the criticism. “It’s a good tactic,” he chuckled, citing the sleepover’s widespread media coverage.
Duffy said the union would use more sleepovers, a relatively new approach. The union held its first at Gulf Avenue Elementary School in Wilmington in support of a principal who was investigated for allegedly misappropriating funds. She was later cleared of those charges.
Duffy vowed to continue protesting at Dolores Street and was lukewarm to further mediation attempts. “We’re far from done,” he said. “We’re not going to stop.”