In Partnership with 74

Labor unions not feeling part of ‘One LA Unified’ after being left off school board’s agenda

Mike Szymanski | August 24, 2017

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Tuesday was the debut of the “Kids First Help Desk” at school board meetings, but unions didn’t feel welcome.

Labor leaders who work with LA Unified were surprised their regular labor report was not on the agenda at the first board meeting of the new school year.

Dropping the “labor partners update” was part of new board President Ref Rodriguez’s “Kid’s First” focus, so he began Tuesday’s meeting with students talking about their schools rather than with labor leaders. They were nowhere on the agenda, while they have been for the past four years.

But that didn’t stop Letetsia A. Fox, president of the California School Employees Association, who was the last person to speak during public comments at the end of Tuesday’s nearly six-hour board meeting.

“The theme last year was ‘We are one,’” Fox told the board, reflecting the catch phrase adopted by the district last year. “Can’t be one if you leave some of us out.”

Rodriguez said the union reports were not completely eliminated and could be part of a “time certain” in future meetings, but he wanted to give the chance for students and parents to speak first.

“I don’t want to show any favoritism to any particular group, and there are parents and students who wait 10 hours to speak to us in the public comment section at the end of the meetings,” Rodriguez said. “So why should labor partners be able to speak about public issues at the beginning of every meeting? I want it to be more equitable.”

Rodriguez is considering moving public comments earlier in the meeting, or to schedule a “time certain” for those comments, meaning they would start at a specific, pre-designated time listed on the agenda.

Cutting the labor report created additional concern among union representatives who see the board’s new pro-reform majority as hostile to union issues. This coming Tuesday, the board will meet in the first of its monthly board retreats, a new feature under Rodriguez’s presidency, and the topic will be the upcoming labor negotiations around the steady increase in costs for health care benefits.

Labor leaders who spoke at past meetings. Letetsia Fox is in blue.

Fox told LA School Report that she found out that the labor partners update was dropped when she saw the agenda last Friday. “I was surprised it was eliminated. I don’t know what the intent was and would love to speak to someone about it.”

Fox, like some other members of the eight labor unions bargaining for contracts with the district, want to see the reports reinstated.

Regular reports from labor unions began after Richard Vladovic was elected board president, and he didn’t start it until December 2013. The previous president, Mónica García, who is also still on the board, didn’t have such reports.

It was former board member David Tokofsky who suggested to Vladovic to give time for the labor reports as part of the “board president’s report,” which is usually held at the beginning of each meeting. Tokofsky initially suggested that one union be highlighted at one meeting, but Vladovic allowed them all to make a report, and that tradition carried on under Steve Zimmer, who was defeated in May’s election.

“I don’t think the general public knows that this was a regular part of the meeting,” Rodriguez said.

But the change came as a surprise for a few board members too, and Scott Schmerelson asked during the meeting if the labor reports could be reinstated or if they could have a discussion about it. Rodriguez said they would discuss it.

In an interview Wednesday, Rodriguez suggested that the courtesy of such reports could also be extended to other community groups. When asked, he said those groups could include the California Charter Schools Association, which usually has a representative speaking at every meeting about specific agenda items.

Board member Scott Schmerelson asked about the omission of the labor reports.

“Whatever we do, I want to make sure that it is equitable, and I want students and parents first,” Rodriguez said. “It’s more important to me to have time for parent groups to speak earlier.”

Max Arias, Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) Local 99’s executive director, said, “While it is unclear whether the change in the board meeting agenda is a permanent change, we do believe that it is important for the board to continue to designate a specific time to hear from frontline employees who work directly with students every day and whose voice is essential to the delivery of programs and services that impact student learning.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, vice president of the teacher unions United Teachers Los Angeles and National Education Association, said, “It was very disappointing to see our reports taken off the agenda. It just proves to us that the interests of billionaires who got this board elected have now taken over the district.”

Myart-Cruz was in the audience proudly noting that she taught the new student school board member Benjamin Holtzman in sixth grade. She said the only way UTLA could register their complaints was during the three minutes given on a specific agenda item.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl declined to answer when asked what he would be saying during his labor report before the meeting.

Juan Flecha addressing the board at a previous meeting.

Juan Flecha, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, recalled that their group had to file a complaint with the Public Employee Relations Board in 2010 when they said García, as president, kept them from speaking at a school board meeting. The complaint, brought by past AALA president Judith Perez, stated that García and the school board were in violation of the Brown Act, which requires open dialogue and free speech at public meetings. (See AALA Free Speech Complaint.) In a settlement, the district agreed that “any board member, upon agreement of the entire board, can recognize someone to speak” about an item even it they haven’t signed up for a speaker card. AALA won $6,000 in attorney’s fees and agreed not to challenge the decision the board made. 

Flecha said he wasn’t surprised about the reports being stricken from the agenda and said it reflected the “denial of free speech and the lack of professional courtesy in the past.”

Flecha said he contacted Rodriguez’s office on the Wednesday before the board meeting and was told the final decision wasn’t yet made. He wasn’t contacted until 6 p.m. the day before the meeting and told they wouldn’t be part of the agenda.

“The district is publicly effusive with labor partners when we make concessions to keep the district afloat and operating,” Flecha said. “Moreover, there are many sound bites promulgating ‘LAUSD is family,’ ‘We love our employees,’ ‘The importance of being transparent, communicative, and collaborative,’ ‘How we need to build bridges across chasms,’ and the like. I have to say in this instance, the district did not ‘walk the talk.’  There was no conversation, no collaboration, no rationale given.”

Flecha said he agreed with Rodriguez that parents should have a voice. “Parents are indeed important and AALA values their partnership,” Flecha said. “With this in mind, I am surprised by the board president’s response as it seems to pit parents against labor partners. We all have an important voice in the process and need to be acknowledged, accommodated, and respected. It is the professional, courteous thing to do.”

The Kids First Help Desk staffed by the Parent and Community Services staff.

Speak UP, a coalition of parents who helped push to elect the pro-reform board, said in Tweets and on their website that the school police kept parents and Speak UP representatives outside the board meeting  for lack of space while a union representative “was allowed to come and go as he pleased.”

Jenny Hontz from Speak UP wrote, “If we’re really going to put kids first, representatives for parents and kids should have the same access to meetings as labor representatives. ‘Kids First’ cannot just be a slogan. It needs to be backed up with real actions that lead to real results.”

Rodriguez said that overall he was pleased with the first board meeting that he ran, although he said he wished the meeting could have been shorter. The afternoon meeting, open to the public, ran five hours and 44 minutes, which followed a three-hour closed session morning meeting. He noted that a handful of parents were helped with issues at the “Kids First Help Desk” at the entrance of the auditorium by the Parent and Community Services representatives, although many of the people did end up waiting to speak to the board as well.

“I still have to learn how to pull the trigger on our long discussions, but overall I think it went well,” Rodriguez said. “I was surprised to get out of the board meeting and it was still daylight.”

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