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Tensions rise as UTLA candidate take on issues, each other

Brianna Sacks | March 5, 2014

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caputo pearl garcia

David Garcia (left), Alex Caputo-Pearl
Candidates for President of UTLA

Tensions deepened last night among the candidates running for the top job at United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) as one of them came close to a physical confrontation with another after the event ended.

Hosted by the teacher advocacy group, Educators4Excellence, at City Hall in Boyle Heights, the event played before a crowd of about 60 teachers, activists, students and community members dining on Subway sandwiches.

E4E members Bianca Sanchez and Jeff Austin moderated four questions to the 10 candidates — all male — running to lead the second largest union in the nation.

Friction was most evident between David Garcia, a substitute teacher, and Alex Caputo-Pearl, who is running at the top of a slate called “Union Power,” over Caputo-Pearl’s recent campaign appearances at LA Unified schools. Garcia angrily accused Caputo-Pearl of violating union election rules and misusing his ties to LAUSD. After the forum, the two nearly got into an altercation, as Garcia swatted at Caputo-Pearl before being restrained.

Other candidates, like Saul Lankster, agreed with Garcia’s accusations, saying that the school district is “giving Caputo-Pearl all the answers to the test since he has had unfettered access to all schools since September.”

The district has said Caputo-Pearl did not file proper paperwork for the unpaid leave, but he has not been disciplined.

“We have to accept fact that this is a very specialized election and the district has made its vote,” Lankster continued as a few crowd members clapped and hooted.

Such issues are why E4E hosted the forum, as the previous debates have often spiraled off topic and were rooted in rhetoric and personal attacks, according to E4E Executive Director Ama Nyamekye.

“There is too much at stake here in LAUSD and UTLA not to ask our candidates to squarely tackle tough policy issues,” she said. “We need to refocus the debate in this election.”

The moderators asked questions that sometimes elicited concrete responses, though a handful of candidates continued to push certain issues no matter what the question.

The very first questions of the evening — what inspired a candidate to run and what first three priorities would be tackled as president — were first addressed by Garcia, who immediately launched into accusing LAUSD of giving Caputo-Pearl preferential treatment by allowing him to take unpaid leave and hire substitutes to visit schools and campaign.

“There is a lot of favoritism going on in this election,” Garcia said. “It’s a corrupt circus.”

Lankster reminded the crowd that closing teacher jails was his top priority.

“It’s more important to me than anything in this race,” he said.

Marcus Ortegas II, a teacher in a “teacher jail,” revised a familiar theme, vowing to change UTLA’s color from red to pink to promote a new, more encompassing leadership.

Kevin Mottus stuck to his platform that Wifi and digital classrooms are seriously endangering students and teachers, citing six teachers who reportedly all died from cancer at one school.

Bill Gaffney said he favors a 20 percent raise for teachers.

The forum also aimed to address hot issues facing teachers that the union and district have clashed about in the past, such as differentiated compensation.

No candidate gave a simple “yes” or “no” answer on how to reward teachers, except Innocent Osunwa, a new union member, who flatly vetoed the idea and said the policy “forces favoritism and encourages discrimination.”

The other nine candidates said they would only support paying certain teachers more money if those teachers put in “extra work, had earned degrees and years of experience,” according to Caputo-Pearl.

Warren Fletcher, the incumbent, reminded the group that this has been in place for a year, and it is meant to “reward experience.” However, Fletcher criticized Superintendent John Deasy for transforming it into a “bonus for test scores to leverage teachers.”

Surprisingly, all 10 candidates basically agreed on the next question—that Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula money should be spent at the school level.

The moderators ended the forum by asking candidates if they believe the union has an obligation to fix the tense and fractured relationship with Deasy and other district leaders.

Fletcher said the district has been vying to “mechanize teaching for years,” and that its senior leadership has a history of intentionally marginalizing teachers.

“We know that LAUSD bureaucracy operates counter to instructional logic,” he said.

For Osunwa and Greg Solkovits, the answer was blaming the media.

“Big media has an anti-union bent and that will never change,” said Solkovits.

Osunwa added that the media discriminate against teachers.

Mottus said he would introduce weekly meetings with the superintendent, adding that Fletcher lost the relationship with the school district with his vote of no confidence in Deasy months ago. He then paused, and returned to condemning Wifi in classrooms.

The two-hour forum ended much as it began, with Caputo-Pearl defending his campaign actions and his union team, and Garcia heatedly interjecting and calling conspiracy.

“The knives are out,” Caputo-Pearl said.

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