Bill Boyarsky
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March 23, 2011

A nasty surprise for teachers

The teachers at the UCLA Community School at the Robert F. Kennedy school complex got an unpleasant surprise the other day, as did teachers at 44 other L.A. Unified schools in poor areas.

These teachers, who tend to be among the young, enthusiastic, energetic and, hopefully, talented, had thought they would be protected from the proposed layoffs of about 7,000 L.A. teachers, the result of the state and local budget crisis. Turns out many teachers may not be protected after all.

I heard about the situation when I was at the Kennedy complex, on the old Ambassador Hotel site, doing research for another story. I later found out it applied to many more schools.

Under the union contract, these layoffs have always been done on a last hired, first fired seniority basis. Younger teachers, who tend to be assigned to schools in poor areas, have been first fired. Many of the veteran teachers, protected by other seniority practices, turn down these difficult jobs. As a result, an ever-shifting cast of substitutes has filled the teaching posts in low-income neighborhoods.

In January, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger approved a settlement of a lawsuit initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union, joined by two law firms. They said the last hired, first fired layoffs, forcing out potentially talented and motivated teachers, disproportionately damaged the education of poor kids. The judge agreed.

That should have been the end of it. But at L.A. Unified, nothing ends. Despite the court decision, layoff warnings—known as Reduction In Force or RIF notices-- went out to low-seniority teachers.

“Of 39 teachers, 20 got RIF notices,” Georgia Lazo, principal of the UCLA Community School, told me. The Kennedy complex serves a low-income area. “It would mean the decimation of our program” She said the teachers had been carefully selected on their ability with bilingual students, to “take a risk” with innovative teaching methods, to collaborate with other faculty members and to teach with a feeling for social justice. It would take time, she said, to replace such a faculty. The RIF notices, she said, have greatly upset the faculty—a situation I’m sure is true at all the other schools.

Why, in view of the judge’s decision, would L.A. Unified sent out the RIF notices to faculty in protected schools? Gale Pollard Terry, a district spokesperson, said the notices were “precautionary” because “there was a chance there will be an appeal.” If the appeal wins, then the district would return to last hired, first fired and the young teachers would be laid off.

The union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, is against the Highberger settlement of the ACLU case and is expected to appeal. The union is a staunch defender of last hired, first fired. Until the union files an appeal and the courts decide, L.A. Unified is content to let these young teachers nervously await their fate. It’s the safe, bureaucratic way of doing things—the L.A. Unified way.

March 16, 2011

Hamilton high students' brilliant political organizing coup

Some of the city’s sharpest political organizers can be found at Hamilton High School. Inspired by the young people of Egypt and Tunisia, they used e-mail and Facebook over the weekend and got 600 students and Times columnist Steve Lopez to the campus Monday in a campaign against layoffs facing about 7,000 L.A. public school teachers. I know many a paid political hack who would sell his or her soul to the devil (again) for such a coup.

Their next goal is to persuade 2,000 or so more students and adults to attend a rally in front of the school at 2955 S. Robertson Blvd. at 9 a.m, Friday, March 18. Everyone interested in protecting L.A. Unified schools is welcome, Sophie Trauberman, a Hamilton senior, told me. I hope many more than 2,000 show up—parents, grandparents, neighbors, any supporter of good education—and then follow up with e-mails of their own to the hopeless state legislature.

I talked to Trauberman, 17, a student in Hamilton’s Music Academy, at the suggestion of her rabbi, Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah, who told me about the students’ organizing.
When word spread Friday about the layoffs, Trauberman and a small group of other Hamilton students decided to organize a meeting on campus for Monday. She said Lopez got about 100 e mails. He wrote a terrific column supporting the students. They also used e mails and Facebook to contact other students.

“If we didn’t have Facebook, if we didn’t have a way to connect with everyone, if we didn’t have a way to contact each other, we wouldn’t have had 600 at the meeting,” Trauberman said. “If we didn’t have Facebook and e mail, nobody would know what is going on.”

Here's the event on Facebook:

The organizers dug into the complexities of the budget issues, learning the significance to what’s happening in Sacramento. They presented the information to the students at the Monday meeting. On Wednesday, about 20 students met to plan the next steps, which includes sending thousands of e mails and faxes to Sacramento.

Students in the L.A. school system have been isolated, uninterested or too often intimidated by school administrators who don’t want any trouble. Now they have a way of organizing on their own. This could be a vibrant new dimension to the eternal school district struggles—student power.

March 3, 2011

No smiles from the mayor

Not a trace of the Antonio Villaraigosa grin was to be seen when the mayor walked into the city hall news conference room Wednesday, trailed by a few suits, all of them solemn as sticks.

I had driven downtown to see the mayor in action. He was talking about public employee pensions. That’s a hot story, and I was curious to see what he had to say. It turned out to be more than I bargained for, a minor revolution in city hall. Villaraigosa announced he wanted to reduce pension and health benefits for city employees.

I took a seat on the aisle. It had been some time since I had been in the room, once a major part of my beat. I looked around. There were fewer reporters and cameras than I remembered, evidence of the cutbacks in local news. Everything else was the same, the room with its late ‘20s movie palace d├ęcor and light fixtures that are more expensive versions of the ones we have in our late ‘20s faux Spanish style house.

Naturally, the surroundings dragged me back to memory lane. I thought of Yorty—the raffish Mayor Sam, Tom Bradley, his exact opposite and Dick Riordan, whose rambling sentences usually made sense after you figured them out.

In the years that I have observed mayors and city hall, the one constant has been that nobody fools around with the employee unions. They ask and, after negotiations, usually get pretty much what they want.

“This is not the news conference any of us want to happen,” said Villaraigosa. In back of him were standing the most funereal group of people I have seen for a long time, even at funerals. They represented the L.A. chamber of commerce; VICA, the big valley business group, and the League of Women Voters,

The mayor spelled the details--$350 million city deficit; spiraling retiree health and pension costs. Retirees will have to pay more. If the council agrees, the retirement age for civilian workers will be raised to 65. It’s now 55 for employees who have worked for at least 33 years.

What was most interesting to me was the tone of his rhetoric.

It’s time to renegotiate pension rights, he said. If the employee unions don’t like these ideas, what about everyone taking a 10 per cent pay cut? It’s time to “share responsibility” for the city’s fiscal mess. It’s a values issue, he said. “This generation of city workers owes it to the next generation that our pension system is viable.”

In our generous city hall, the employees have grown accustomed to an automatic “yes.” The new word from the unsmiling mayor seems to be“ no.”

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