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Union candidates gang up on Fletcher and, of course, Deasy

Vanessa Romo | January 31, 2014

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Bill Gaffney, one of ten candidates for president of UTLA

Bill Gaffney, one of ten candidates for president of UTLA

The Los Angeles teachers union election process is long – from February to July – and a lot like a reality show, with multiple voting rounds to knock out candidates/contestants, until finally, there’s only one person left standing.

That’s especially true in the race for UTLA president, which has 10 men competing for the chance to lead about 40,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other health and human services professionals.

Eight of them faced each other for the first time yesterday, in the first forum of the campaign season. It was held at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake, organized by the school’s chapter chair for members of the North Area. Fewer than 40 people attended, and that included candidates for other offices.

Over the course of an hour incumbent Warren Fletcher, Gregg Solkovits, Alex Caputo-Pearl, David Garcia, Bill Gaffney, Saul Lankster, Marcos Ortega II and Kevin Mottus answered questions touching on the union’s successes and failures over the last three years under Fletcher; they addressed the causes of the achievement gap and how to close it; and the opportunities and challenges in LA Unified.

Without wasting any time they all agreed — even Fletcher — the current state of the union is fractured and plagued with in-fighting.

“One of the great challenges we face is disunity,” he admitted to the audience, which, ironically all appeared to be united on this issue.

And, although Fletcher said “discourse is healthy” he cautioned members against becoming entrenched in their differences at the risk of losing recent gains made for the union, such as the passage of Prop. 30. Referring to the extra infusion of cash to the district from the tax initiative, he said, “we need to make sure we don’t fritter it away by being at each others throats.”

All the other candidates blamed Fletcher for the lack of cohesion and clear messaging.

Gaffney, a 28-year teacher, said Fletcher has been an ineffective collaborator and union officers have failed to lead or devise a strategic plan.

“We’re just putting out fires,” he said, throwing his hands in the air.

“We haven’t been able to put ourselves at the table with power,” Caputo-Pearl argued. Instead, “we privately negotiate with school board members and that doesn’t work.”

To strengthen UTLA’s leverage, Caputo-Pearl said he would develop a coalition branch, a communications department, and also cultivate team of researchers and experts “to frame the debate” on big issues like the Common Core.

Solkovits also argued UTLA’s governing structures and constitution are outdated. “The constitution was written in 1969 . . . and it sets up a system where there are a lot of chiefs without much input from average members,” he said in an interview before the event. “I would get rid of it, rewrite it, and make it easier to pass motions.”

But as much as the non-Fletcher candidates blamed the current leadership, the real villain of the night was not in the room: Superintendent John Deasy.

Garcia came out swinging, calling Deasy “Evil Von Sleazy.” He proceeded to punctuate each response by tossing the microphone on the lectern until he was asked to be more respectful of school property.

Lankster accused Deasy of being a “corporatee” and in league with corporate interests.

On a similar note, Fletcher received a smattering of applause when he said, “Deasy was sent to this town to dismantle UTLA” and that the superintendent views LA Unified as a “drill and kill district” for charter organizations hoping to privatize public education.

Mottus suggested Deasy is deliberately ignoring scientific evidence that the district’s wi-fi infrastructure is jeopardizing the health of students and teachers.

Ortega, who says he’s been “trapped in teacher jail” since October, said Deasy’s mission to rid the district of bad teachers has caused irreparable collateral damage.

“Deasy cast a big net and it’s catching sharks and barracudas but it’s also catching guppies and angelfish,” he said.

The low turn out was especially poignant in light of the stream of comments about teacher disenfranchisement.

Throughout the question and answer session, only Fletcher made a brief mention of cuts to the district’s Adult Education programs. That was disappointing to Veronica Toleda, a family literacy programming coordinator at 15th Street Elementary School, who supports Mottus.

“That’s the reason I came,” she said. “I think the people in charge now only focus on K-12 teachers. They forget that adult education teachers are in the union too, and they don’t support us.”

Other topics that received very little attention: teacher evaluations, the Common Core, standardized testing, and the district’s billion dollar iPad program.

Wil Page, the school chapter chair who organized the event and moderated the Q&A session, said that was due to time constraints.

“This is a really long election cycle and I’m sure we’ll get to all of those questions in the time to come,” he said. “This was more like an elimination round. I don’t know who I’m voting for yet, but I know who I’m not voting for after tonight.”

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