For new L.A. schools chief Austin Beutner, some key unions are giving no honeymoon period
In the less than two weeks since Austin Beutner took charge of Los Angeles schools, unions representing teachers and administrators have staged a job action and a protest.
They’ve made it clear that they will not give the new superintendent the traditional honeymoon period, and they are bashing him for his wealth and lack of experience running either a school or a school district.
“Beutner is a billionaire investment banker with zero qualifications,” local teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl told members in a phone alert urging them to participate in a Thursday afternoon rally in Grand Park. “The board is saying that billionaires who made their money blowing institutions up and making money off it know best — not the education professionals who have dedicated our careers to working with students.”
Caputo-Pearl and other union leaders hope to energize their members and apply pressure to long-stalled contract negotiations, but what’s at stake goes far beyond the next contract.
Union leaders — and many in the rank and file — believe Beutner and the school board majority that selected him represent an existential threat to their jobs and even their employer, the Los Angeles Unified School District. The board majority was elected with the financial support of charter school backers, and Beutner’s candidacy had behind-the-scenes backing from some of them.
Beutner arrives at a time when the number of charter schools — which mostly are nonunion — continues to grow and district enrollment continues to plummet, in part because of that competition. Teachers union membership in L.A. Unified has dropped from 42,000 to 31,000 since 2007, according to the school system. Many question whether the district, which is facing a potential financial crisis, can keep all its traditional public schools open. They insist that closing schools and cutting district programs will hurt students.
Charter school supporters, in contrast, believe that these privately operated, publicly funded schools — freed from bureaucratic interference and rules — can rescue district children who are slipping behind academically.
Beutner’s supporters insist he will work hard for traditional schools, and he has said nothing to suggest otherwise. His board supporters have made it clear that they chose a superintendent with business savvy with the expectation that he will rapidly make major changes.
“We made the right decision,” school board President Monica Garcia said of hiring Beutner. “I know Austin is going to stay open in hearing people and working with people, and the job here is to help us serve more children than we do already. Things are moving forward with urgency and optimism.”
Beutner has not responded to the barbs from unions and other critics. He has said that he hopes to win over those who think he can’t do the job.
“Change is never easy and rarely comfortable,” he said in a statement to The Times this week. “We all share the same goal — improving the education and lives of our students.”
But this early resistance adds to the daunting challenges Beutner faces, including the district’s lagging academic achievement and the fast-growing burden of pension and healthcare costs as declining enrollment limits the amount of state funding coming in.
Beutner, who was a deputy mayor of L.A. and publisher of the L.A. Times, spent the last year leading an outside task force that studies the district intensively, starting with the premise that “the status quo is not good enough.”
But the task force did not make recommendations about how to solve the district’s biggest problems, and Beutner has yet to state specific plans — which has stoked the anxiety of those who distrust him.
Some also question the way the new superintendent was hired.
The initial board vote to negotiate exclusively with Beutner was not announced. It was 4 to 3 — meaning that every pro-Beutner vote was crucial, including that of Ref Rodriguez, who is part of the four-member charter-backed board majority.
Rodriguez faces a criminal trial and felony charges for alleged campaign-finance violations, and some critics believe the board majority wanted to act quickly before circumstances might make him step down. He has denied wrongdoing and has resisted public pressure to resign.
More than a week after that first vote, the board voted 5 to 2 to approve Beutner’s contract. People who spoke before the board or wrote to board members expressed anger when they learned that the decision to go with Beutner had been made privately before their voices could be heard.
At Thursday’s large rally, attacking Beutner was a theme.
Chants prepared for the day included “Hey Beutner, you can’t hide! We can see your greedy side,” and “Money for kids and education, not for billionaire profit-making.”
Beutner’s selection also inspired a rare job action last week by administrators, who are known for fealty to the chain of command. Last Friday, many elementary principals wore white — with no ties or jackets.
“White in Asia symbolizes mourning and death,” Juan Flecha, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said in an email urging members to join in. “Hopefully, we will never have to mourn the death of public education.”
L.A Unified teachers shout during a union rally Thursday outside Los Angeles City Hall. Contract negotiations have been long stalled.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Teachers rally Thursday at City Hall. Teachers union membership in L.A. Unified has dropped from 42,000 to 31,000 since 2007, according to the school system.
Thousands of teachers filled Grand Park to participate in the United Teachers Los Angeles rally on Thursday.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles TImes)
Teachers from Baldwin Hills participate in the United Teachers Los Angeles rally at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.(GIna Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Teachers from Eagle Rock participate in a union rally at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.(GIna Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
UTLA teachers rally in front of L.A. City Hall on Thursday. Chants prepared for the day included “Hey Beutner, you can’t hide! We can see your greedy side,” and “Money for kids and education, not for billionaire profit-making.”
Thousands of teachers filled Grand Park to participate in the United Teachers Los Angeles rally.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Beutner pledged his support to elementary principals on that day, when he briefly appeared at a training session and meeting. But after he had left, Flecha — whose comments were recorded — suggested that the new superintendent looked a little tired, maybe because of a long commute from his “$14-million home.” He went on to say that Beutner might be a Scientologist and might be using that affiliation to avoid paying property taxes.
Beutner is Jewish, and according to public records, has paid his taxes on two local residential properties he owns.
What really angers principals, Flecha said later, is “untenable” working conditions, including a district rule that only elementary schools with 1,100 or more students get assistant principals.
The simmering discontent about Beutner extends to the two board members who voted against approving his contract. One of them, Scott Schmerelson, vented last week to the Northridge East Neighborhood Council.
In comments recorded on tape, Schmerelson called Beutner’s conversations with the board “the worst interview I have ever seen in my entire life… Not one question was answered about education. Nothing.” Schmerelson said the fix was in from the beginning for Beutner, “but I’m so stupid that I think that everybody’s honest and fair.”
Board member George McKenna, who also voted against Beutner, has spoken out without attacking Beutner so personally.
“To intentionally seek non-educators to serve as superintendents reflects a lack of respect for the professional educators who have demonstrated effective service and leadership,” McKenna said the day after Beutner’s selection.
Beutner is hardly the first superintendent to encounter internal opposition. Teachers went on strike in 1989, but Leonard Britton, the superintendent at the time, had gotten the job in 1987 with a unanimous board vote as well as some labor support. More recently, union leaders used criticism of Supt. John Deasy to charge up teachers, but not from the start. Labor at first took a wait-and-see stance on Deasy, who served from 2011 to 2014.
Past superintendents also have overcome initial skepticism. Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who served as schools chief from 2000 to 2006, won grudging regard from some union leaders who had questioned his lack of a background in education. And just before Romer, Ramon C. Cortines won over some Latino activists upset over the removal of his predecessor Ruben Zacarias.
Successful labor negotiations would tone down the rhetoric, as they did recently for a union representing nonteaching employees. Beutner has met briefly with both Caputo-Pearl and Flecha and has pledged to do so regularly.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to be critical about the selection of a leader,” said school board member Nick Melvoin. “I think the pettiness of some of the critiques … is disappointing. After a decision doesn’t go the way you want it to, I hope you pick your head up and go back to the hard work of improving the district for kids, and that’s what most people are doing.”
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
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