A leading advocate for autonomy for Westchester’s public schools has accused the Los Angeles Unified School District and Superintendent Ramon Cortines of undermining hard fought gains by community members and teachers in their quest for local control of their schools.

Kelly Kane, president of the Westchester Playa Education Foundation, blasted Cortines for what she says is undue and unwanted interference regarding the principal of Westchester High School, Dr. Bruce Mims. Mims, who was hired by one of the high school’s committees in December 2008, was removed from his position late last month.

“Under our agreement with LAUSD, we have the right to hire and fire administrative staff at our local schools,” Kane, who has been at the forefront of the autonomy movement, said. “(LAUSD) is a monarchy that feels that its decisions are so supreme that they are undeniable.”

While many of the teachers and parents liked and respected Mims, Kane feels that his firing was orchestrated without the consent of the high school’s governance council and that, she said, is a reach of ethics and courtesy.

“The ability to hire and fire who we want is a central tenet of autonomy,” explained Kane, whose children attend Westport Heights Elementary school. “I believe that all of the decisions should be made at the local school site level.”

Stephen Rochelle, the former principal at Orville Wright Middle School, has been named as the interim principal of the high school.

Local District Superintendent Michelle King notified community members in a Thursday, May 27th letter that a change would be taking place in the high school’s administration.

“I am personally writing to address your concerns regarding the welfare of Westchester High School. During the past several weeks, Superintendent Cortines, (Innovation and Charter Executive Director Parker Hudnut) and I have received numerous messages regarding the leadership at Westchester High School,” King wrote. “After careful consideration, Superintendent Cortines is appointing Mr. Stephen Rochelle as transitional principal for Westchester High School effective Tuesday, June 1st.”

No reason for the principal’s termination was given.

An LAUSD spokeswoman said the district could not comment on the Westchester situation because it is a personnel matter.

Mims’ firing comes at an ominous time when the future of Westchester autonomy, once thought to be fully underway, appears to be in doubt.

“We had such high hopes for the future and we really thought that we had turned the corner,” said Ann Wexler, a Westchester parent whose daughter is graduating this year from the high school. “(LAUSD) did not give a good reason for dismissing (Mims).”

Wexler and others point to a favorable report by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accreditation board that reviews all colleges and high schools throughout California, as well as the rise in test scores during Mims’ short tenure as evidence that the school was on the right track.

“By the measurements that LAUSD set, he reached a lot of his goals,” said Gail Levy, who was a member of the selection committee that recommended Mims.

No one on the governance council, which hired an assistant principal last year as well, was notified of King’s decision.

“That’s the part that hurts the most,” said Kenneth Tiegs, who teaches history at Westchester High and chairs the governance council. “The promises of autonomy have not been fulfilled by the district.”

King said her office received a number of requests to allow Westchester stakeholders to participate in the selection of a new principal.

“The iDesign staff will work with stakeholders to develop a process in the selection for Westchester High School’s new leadership,” King wrote.

Autonomy in Westchester traces its roots to almost six years ago, when a group of parents began look into the possibility of obtaining more local control from the school district. After fits and starts, LAUSD entered into an agreement with Loyola Marymount University, which signed on to become a “network partner” with five of the seven schools that voted to join the iDivision, the forerunner to iDesign.

LMU agreed to provide teacher training, fundraising capabilities, assistance with budgets, professional development and a host of other resources to the autonomy effort.

This year, the district did not sign a contract with the university, which led to further speculation by autonomy supporters that local control could be in jeopardy.

According to iDesign Director Monique Epps, Westchester schools still have certain autonomies over curriculum and budgets, but not the independence to hire and fire personnel.

“Some autonomies are easier to grant than others,” Epps explained. “The district still maintains the right to hire and fire teachers.”

Under LAUSD’s collective bargaining agreement, teachers and administrators are employees of the school district, not the individual iDesign schools.

Ingrid Lamoreaux, a member of the hiring committee whose children attend the high school, said not having a signed agreement regarding autonomy with the district could be the source of the current problems with LAUSD.

“The district didn’t reach out to us,” said Lamoreaux, who like Wexler and Kane has been one of the leaders of the autonomy movement. “We knew that this could happen.”

Tiegs is dismayed that the local control movement has not gone the way that many thought it would.

“We’ve been operating with the understanding that (LAUSD officials) were going to do what they said they were going to do,” the history teacher said.

Kane said she is exploring legal action against LAUSD for fraud and breach of contract.

“We had an agreement with LAUSD,” she said. “This is a slap in the face to all of the stakeholders who were counting on having autonomy in their schools.

“I feel like I have let down all of the people that I have encouraged to support autonomy all these years.”

Wexler said that she has spoken to parents who fought for autonomy and they are now discouraged after learning of Mims’ firing.

“I think it’s fair to say that autonomy doesn’t exist anymore,” she asserted. “I think it’s a charade and a fraud.”

Levy, whose daughter is a junior at Westchester High, believes that the school district should keep its word and collaborate with the governance council before deciding upon a permanent choice for principal.

“At the very least, LAUSD should allow them to weigh in on who they want to choose,” she said.

Epps said the school district will be meeting with the iDesign schools to clarify the definition of local control and what it entails. “We want to make sure that the autonomies they have are grounded in data and what is best for the students at each school,” she said.

Tiegs said he expects to meet with King and other LAUSD officials Friday, June 4th for an explanation on the status of autonomy in Westchester.

“Right now, it’s very unclear to me what it is,” Tiegs said.

Kane said she remains committed to seeking legal action against LAUSD.

“The gauntlet has been thrown down,” she said.

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, could not be reached as The Argonaut went to press.

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