L.A’s mayor getting schooled

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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has had a rough enough week. First he took a beating in a poll on his performance, and then, his star tarnished, he announced he would take a rain check on a run for governor.

So I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but I’ve been gathering up the results of polling at the 10 schools that for the last year have been under the mayor’s wing, and there’s no way to sugarcoat this.

At eight of the 10 campuses, the mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools got a resounding thumbs down from teachers.


You read correctly.

Eight out of 10 schools delivered a “no confidence” vote, and we’re talking landslides (84 to 17 at Santee Education Complex, 96 to 13 at Stevenson Middle School, 70 to 13 at Gompers Middle School, 61 to 8 at Markham Middle School and 184 to 15 at Roosevelt High, which the mayor himself once attended).

At a ninth school, Hollenbeck Middle, there was no vote, but teachers have made their unhappiness known verbally.

At the 10th school, Ritter Elementary, the partnership was supported by 68% of the faculty, but there were still major grievances.

And now some teachers active in United Teachers Los Angeles are circulating the draft of a scathing letter they intend to send to Villaraigosa, telling him “these votes reflect concerns about the extent of your leadership” in addressing concerns about layoffs and class size. The teachers say the mayor’s partnership is “in deep trouble,” and they “cannot impress upon” him “strongly enough” that they’re tired of “empty promises.”

But how do they really feel?

I guess an optimist would say there’s nowhere for the partnership to go but up. But it’s hard to be terribly optimistic after such a resounding rejection.

Late in 2007, after bad-mouthing LAUSD and bungling an attempt to grab control of the entire district, Villaraigosa convinced teachers at these 10 low-performing schools to vote to put themselves under his sway. Fall in line behind him, he said, and there’d be less bureaucracy, more parental and community support, schools would be cleaner, smaller, safer, better, and all students would aim for college.


Well, it sounded good.

“Some teachers not only have no confidence, but they want to get out” of the partnership, said Harold Dolan, a science teacher at Stevenson Middle School. “It just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.”

His list of grievances was similar to those I wrote about last month after interviews with teachers at Roosevelt High, the first school that went from enthusiastic support for the mayor’s partnership to an overwhelming “no confidence” vote in polling conducted in late May.

“I’d say the biggest issue is failed promises,” said Dolan, including a vow that teachers and community leaders would have bigger roles in designing better schools

Dolan and teachers at Markham, Gompers and Santee told me they had started with high hopes. The mayor and his allies held out the promise of millions in private donations. In reality, the teachers say they have seen few new resources and have suffered from a lack of communication and no clear sense of who’s in charge.

“I haven’t seen the training support we wanted or the local decision-making, so that’s a shambles,” said Jose Lara, a Santee teacher who added that the mayor hasn’t exactly been front and center.

“I’ve seen him for photo ops and that’s about it. Hit and run. He takes pictures and leaves.”


Although Ritter Elementary teachers kept the mayor from a 10-for-10 losing streak, one UTLA staffer had nothing good to say after a yearlong effort to rebuild the bilingual program at that school.

“I have seen nothing but obstructionism, a lack of cooperation and collaboration, disingenuousness and dishonesty,” from the partnership, said Cheryl Ortega, UTLA’s director of bilingual education.

And parents aren’t exactly thrilled, either.

“To me it’s kind of a sham,” said Elvette Hodge, whose daughter just graduated from Markham. Hodge said parents and the community have been largely ignored. When he complains about problems at the school, the partnership says go tell it to the district, and the district says go tell it to the partnership, Hodge said.

With so much snarling and growling, it’s no wonder the mayor hasn’t had a higher profile on these campuses. He’s at least smart enough to distance himself from what looks like a disaster, both politically and educationally, and hope his underlings can make him come off a little better in the end.

Once again, I took the many complaints to Marshall Tuck and Angela Bass, who run the partnership on the mayor’s behalf. They admitted they haven’t done a bang-up job of communicating with teachers and acknowledged they’ve got big problems to solve. They said they’ve been meeting with teachers to hear specific complaints and hope to get everyone moving forward.

OK, but did they naively underestimate the depth of the challenge or the entrenched politics? And more important, do they really have a formula for reforming deeply troubled schools that have been struggling for decades?


Yes, Tuck and Bass claimed, but it’s going to take longer than one school year. These weren’t just among the lowest performing schools in the city, but in the entire state, Bass said.

Budget cuts didn’t ease the challenge, nor did the sinking morale that came with layoff notices for roughly 20% of the teachers at the 10 partnership schools.

Still, said Bass, there are signs of improvement. At Santee, attendance is up 8%. For 10th-graders, 30% more are passing a standardized test on the first try.

A.J. Duffy, who runs the United Teachers Los Angeles, said there’s no question the “promise of change has not materialized” yet. But he isn’t ready to go running back into the arms of L.A. Unified, Duffy added. “I don’t want to blame anybody,” he said. “What I want to say is, ‘We’re hanging in there.’ ”

He said he planned to appeal directly to the mayor this summer “and let him know we want to try to preserve this reform,” but it may mean that heads have to roll.

Some of the mayor’s managers, according to Duffy, have been “anything but collaborative.”

Duffy’s teachers were even more direct.

“In the final analysis,” they said in their letter to the mayor, “we will not tolerate a ‘reform’ that continues to replicate the worst aspects of the LAUSD bureaucracy and management style.”


“We look forward to your serious attention to this crisis.”

Well, he will have more time on his hands, now that he has to serve detention in the mayor’s office for the next four years.