The Los Angeles teachers union must combat public perceptions that it protects bad teachers and should help them improve with better training, a city school board member told union activists in a wide-ranging speech Sunday.
Monica Ratliff, a fifth-grade teacher who pulled off an upset win in May for the Los Angeles Board of Education, told more than 400 leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles that the public likes teachers but distrusts labor unions.
"People have a fair amount of affection for teachers," said Ratliff, who drew a standing ovation of cheers and chants. "People have a fair amount of distrust of labor. … If we don't recognize it, it will be our undoing."
FOR THE RECORD:
UTLA and public perceptions: An article in the Aug. 5 LATExtra section about a teachers union conference said that United Teachers Los Angeles had previously conducted a vote of no-confidence in Supt. John Deasy with a "small survey" of teachers. In fact, the survey was conducted among 17,700 of the union's 32,000 members; 91% of those supported the no-confidence vote. —
She also said union members should be more active in lobbying the state Legislature for such changes as keeping teacher performance ratings confidential — an L.A. Superior Court judge ruled last week that those ratings should be released to The Times. And Ratliff urged teachers to better spotlight their "wonderful work" by offering school visits to board members and others.
Ratliff unexpectedly defeated Antonio Sanchez, a candidate with much more campaign funding and with backing from former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But she also triumphed without financial assistance from UTLA, which endorsed both candidates.
During the UTLA-hosted weekend of workshops, speakers and political campaigning for new union officers at a Los Angeles hotel, several teachers said their morale was low and anxieties high. The weekend's events were attended by mostly activist teachers who represent the union on their school campuses.
Despite some victories this year — passage of a state ballot measure for more school funding and a revamped L.A. school board that the union perceives as more "teacher-friendly" — many instructors said they felt beaten down by large classes, staff cutbacks, rising teacher dismissals and public disrespect. They also expressed frustration over escalating job demands to raise student test scores, serve breakfast in the classroom and submit to a new teacher evaluation system that many complained they had no voice in shaping.
"In a very real way, UTLA is under attack and we are still at war," union President Warren Fletcher said during a lunchtime address Saturday.
Aaron Bruhnke, a San Pedro High School economics teacher, said his classes sizes are set to balloon to about 50 students this year, and nearly 20% of the teaching staff has been cut in the last five years, including all college counselors. Abelardo Diaz said his Advanced Placement Spanish courses at the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts are now at 45 students, nearly twice the size recommended by the College Board.
At a Latino Caucus meeting, teachers bemoaned the district's classroom breakfast program, saying it cut into their teaching time, drew vermin and caused messes they had to clean.
And in a meeting for South L.A. teachers, the area's leader, Ingrid Villeda, expressed concerns that the district would replace veteran instructors with inexperienced young ones — including some of the 500 new teachers headed to Los Angeles under a $20-million grant to Teach for America, a nonprofit based in New York. Three teachers also outlined their efforts to fight off campaigns to overhaul their elementary schools — Miramonte, 93rd Street and 68th Street — under the parent trigger law, which allows parents to petition for changes at low-performing campuses.
Villeda and others said they felt threatened by such efforts to take over campuses, attack their seniority rights in lawsuits and displace teachers. "There is fear in every school," Villeda said.
Several teachers also said they distrusted L.A. Unified schools Supt. John Deasy and blamed him for what they called an imperious manner. In his remarks, Fletcher criticized Deasy for "scolding, scapegoating and demeaning teachers" rather than supporting or listening to them but would not say whether the union would seek his ouster. The union previously has conducted a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent in a small survey of teachers.
The union held trainings on parent trigger campaigns, the teacher evaluation system and community organizing, along with workshops on teaching math, reading and even yoga.
The weekend also kicked off campaigning for the union election early next year. Alex Caputo-Pearl, a former Crenshaw High School teacher, announced his bid for president on a slate that has drawn the support of six of the union's eight area leaders. Caputo-Pearl said his "Union Power" group believes Fletcher has been too passive in fighting attacks on teachers and plans to organize the broader community to press for smaller classes, pay raises and protections for campuses against charter schools and other outside groups.
Fletcher, who said he is "leaning" toward a reelection bid but has not officially decided, said he welcomed a "healthy debate" over his performance and union priorities. Among other achievements, he said he helped stop district efforts to use teacher performance ratings in evaluations and protected thousands of jobs from elimination last year. He said his top priorities were restoring jobs — more than 500 laid-off teachers are still out of work — and seeking pay raises.