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Fiery Speech by UTLA Chief Gets Mixed Response From Members

Hillel Aron | August 5, 2013

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Photo by Kim Turner of UTLA

Photo by Kim Turner of UTLA

Teachers union President Warren Fletcher delivered a fiery speech to more than 400 UTLA chapter chairs and activists on Saturday, using language more suited to a situation room than a classroom.

“UTLA is under attack,” he said at the union’s leadership conference in Los Angeles “We are still at war.”

His closing line sounded a battle cry: “Let us take the fight to them! This is the year we get our money back!”

Roughly half the room, many of them wearing red UTLA t-shirts, gave Fletcher a number of standing ovations while the other half either sat silently or clapped politely, looking disinterested.The divided response signaled divisions within the union and a strong challenge to Fletcher’s leadership in the months ahead.

After the speech, Fletcher told LA School Report he would continue to press for the re-hiring of over 500 teachers that remain on the re-hire list. When teachers and other certificated employees are laid off, they go onto a list of employees that must be re-hired should the district hire anyone for those positions. They stay on the list for 39 weeks.

“Staffing and salary are co-equal priorities,” said Fletcher, a former English teacher. He said he wasn’t yet ready to say how big a raise UTLA would be asking for, since it was unclear how much new revenue would be coming into the district. “The district and UTLA, we probably look forward to arguing at some point, but we can’t argue until we have a vocabulary.”

Superintendent John Deasy has said that he favors giving raises to all current LAUSD employees, including teachers, before the district hires any new employees. Instead, the School Board in June directed him to draw up a plan to restore staffing to 2008 levels.

In his speech, Fletcher denounced Deasy for conducting a “witch hunt” on teachers, saying that Los Angeles “has become the teacher dismissal capital of California. While LAUSD employs about 10 percent of the state’s teachers, the district accounts for nearly 40 percent of California’s teacher dismissal cases.”

In the interview, Fletcher stopped short of calling for Deasy’s removal.

“At this point, because of UTLA’s governance, I don’t get to make calls like that,” he said. “Our UTLA House of Representatives gets to make calls like that. We’ve been very measured.” The House of Representatives is a 350-member elected body that decides all UTLA policy; Fletcher presides over their meetings.

When asked if Deasy deserved any credit for a wide range of student performance metrics that appear to be rising, such as test scores, truancy and graduation rates, Fletcher replied sarcastically: “I didn’t realize he was teaching school.”

He added: “Teachers teach. And we have been teaching for the last five years under fire, under some of the worst conditions ever. When gains are made” — here he made a distinction between test scores and academic improvement — “the teachers are doing that. And the health and human services professionals. Because graduation rates are about persistence in school, and you can’t have persistence in school without fully staffed health and human services.”

In January, UTLA will hold elections for all its officers, including president. Fletcher stopped short of declaring that he would run again but said, “At this point, I am leaning towards that.”

One group of teachers opposed to Fletcher, calling themselves “Union Power,” did declare their candidacies this weekend. The slate includes Alex Caputo-Pearl, who’s running for president, and three incumbent union officers — Betty Forrester, Juan Ramirez and Arlene Inouye. Four others are also affiliated — Cecily Myart-Cruz, Juan Ramirez, Colleen Schwab and Daniel Barnhart.

The group distributed flyers during the conference, criticizing the Fletcher administration for signing “weak, piecemeal agreements with no mobilizations” and having “no systematic political action strategy.”

“This is as democratic a union as you’re ever going to find,” said Fletcher, when asked about the opposition. “And I love that. The last thing I would expect is that there would be no criticism of my work. It’s been a complex time for any big city teachers union.”

He added: “In an election season, criticisms tend to be stated in a heightened way. I’m not immune to criticism, and I’m not immune to improvement.”

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