In Partnership with 74

With 2 votes, LA Unified board moves beyond usual boundaries

Vanessa Romo | February 11, 2015

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George McKenna LA UnifiedLA Unified lawyers will start taking on student deportation cases on a pro-bono and volunteer basis, making it the first school district in the country to represent immigrant children.

Under the new legal program called AYUDA — that’s Spanish for “help” — district lawyers will provide legal aid to a small number of unaccompanied minors at their deportation proceedings, beginning in April. The cases will be pre-screened by outside organizations with expertise in immigration law and will not interfere with the day-to-day duties of the district’s attorneys.

Approval of that program and a resolution involving farm workers in the Central Valley, highlighting an otherwise routine board meeting yesterday, demonstrated the members’ eagerness to assume a more holistic approach to issues affecting students and families even if it has no direct bearing on improving standardized test scores, closing the achievement gap or boosting high school graduation rates.

Nonetheless, the district made clear that it was not hesitant to step in policy areas generally left to other government agencies when the issues intersect with the lives of those living within its boundaries.

But concerns were raised, as well, prior to each vote of approval. Board member George McKenna was especially eloquent, asking where to draw the line when opportunities present themselves to aid students and their families. While expressing support for the immigration help, he wondered it the district were over stepping its responsibility to students, setting an untenable precedent.

“There have been numerous times in the past when our children and their families have needed support and this is the first time I have heard of this district representing itself as being the respondent to legal services pro-bono,” he told the board.

“I’m sure this is a worthy enterprise,” he added. “But I’m not sure if it’s more worthy than other things that have not been addressed.”

General Counsel David Holmquist said the resolution echoes a call to action by Governor Jerry Brown, who signed legislation allocating $3 million in legal aid for unaccompanied children.

“If we prove that this really works with us and we can find other public purposes that are consistent with state law, we would love to expand and do something else,” Holmquist told the board.

Ten District lawyers are expected to handle these cases, an average of one to three hours a week, in partnership with nonprofit organizations that specialize in this type of immigration law. The district lawyers would make up those hours by working late and on weekends to handle their normal workload.

While it’s not known how many total cases will be handled by District volunteer attorneys, there are currently several thousand unaccompanied children unrepresented in cases pending before the Los Angeles Immigration Court.

Board President Richard Vladovic had the last word in the debate, telling his colleagues, “Anything we can do that doesn’t bankrupt us that helps kids, I’m for it.”

Despite his concerns, McKenna joined five other board members approving the program, 6-1. Only Tamar Galatzan, a public sector attorney, opposed the motion, insisting that lawyers should do free, volunteer work “in their off time, not during work time.”

The expanding vision of the board emerged earlier in the meeting when the members debated a resolution from Steve Zimmer and Vladovic to bar Gerawan Farming of Fresno from bidding on food procurement contracts with the district until the company signs a union contract with its farm workers.

Dozens of workers wearing red shirts had traveled to Los Angeles to attend the meeting, some of them addressing the board to ask for its support.

The measure comes on the heels of the “Good Food” resolution approved by the board in December that calls on the district to purchase healthier foods and to only work with vendors who provide a safe environment for workers and a cruelty-free environment for livestock.

But yesterday’s resolution was purely symbolic: Gerawan, one of the country’s largest fruit suppliers, has never signed a contract with the district nor is it seeking one — a distinction made clear when Galatzan grilled George Silva, the district’s chief food procurement officer.

“Do we have contracts with this grower?” she asked.

“There are no contracts with this company,” Silva replied, adding that he could find no evidence of any relationship with Gerawan in the past five years.

As chief sponsor, Zimmer wore the same red shirt as the workers and argued passionately on behalf of the measure, reading from notes and recalling his own experiences with a farm worker family.

“We must ensure that we are adequately enforcing the compliance with the food procurement resolution that we have passed,” he said. “When the largest school districts in this nation hold big agriculture to the highest environmental and labor standards, the industry itself can be moved.”

The measure at least gave the members a chance to flash their pro-labor bonafides at a time the district is struggling to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union. Each day without progress raises the possibility of a strike.

The resolution passed, 6-0. Galatzan abstained.

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