School reform plans submitted by teachers and parents carried the day during a weeklong voting period to determine who will control 30 new schools scheduled to be built by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

The voting by teachers, parents and members of each LAUSD school’s community, which ended February 6th, was the first stage of the district’s Public School Choice initiative. The school plan allows for charter organizations, as well as current LAUSD schools, to bid on newly built schools and what district officials call “failing schools.”

Local school plans won in 25 out of 29 elections.

United Teachers Los Angeles, which supported the local school plans, said the advisory vote sent a message to charter organizations as well as district officials.

“The votes are in, and the verdict is clear: Parents want teachers to drive change at their schools, not outside organizations,” A.J. Duffy, president of UTLA, said in a statement released after the vote. “Overwhelmingly, parents, students, and community members picked the customized proposals developed by local teachers who know the students best.”

Overall, 87 percent of parents voted for the school plans favored by UTLA.

Although the vote is advisory only, teachers union representatives believe this gives them momentum going into the Tuesday, February 23rd school board meeting, when the board will vote to see which reform plans are adopted.

Representatives of charter groups and UTLA accused each other of unethical practices in the weeks leading up to the vote, prompting LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines to address the situation in the days leading up to the election.

“Overall, I have been pleased with the involvement of our parents and stakeholders in the advisory vote process,” Cortines wrote in a February 5th letter to district employees. “For some, this has been the first opportunity to share their thoughts about how to improve their schools.

“However, others have used this opportunity to focus on adult issues, rather than what is best for our students,” the superintendent continued. “For those of you who think that you can ‘game’ the system, you are wasting your time. I am using the advisory votes as another data point when considering my recommendations, and the quality of the plan and applicants will be my primary focus.”

Gayle Pollard-Terry, a LAUSD spokeswoman reiterated Cortines’ position regarding the February 23rd vote.

“While the advisory vote will be a consideration, the superintendent will make a recommendation based primarily on what is the best instruction plan for students and their academic achievement,” Pollard-Terry said.

Green Dot Charter Schools Chief Executive Officer Marco Petruzzi said his organization had behaved ethically during the election, but claimed the teachers union had not.

“We have a ton of evidence that we have submitted to the district that (UTLA) was electioneering,” the Green Dot executive said. “In many ways, I’m glad that this was just an advisory vote.”

LAUSD School Board member Steve Zimmer is also aware of the accusations of unethical conduct from both the teachers union and the Parent Revolution, an organization of parents with strong ties to Green Dot.

“It was distressing and disappointing to hear that,” Zimmer, who represents the Fourth District including Westchester and Venice, told The Argonaut. “But I don’t think that in any way this invalidates the advisory vote.”

Ben Austin, the executive director of the Parent Revolution, claimed earlier this month that UTLA had been untruthful to parents about charter schools and prevented his organization from meeting with parents.

“Some teachers have used access to parents to manipulate and lie to them,” he accused. “No matter what side of you’re on, this should always be about student improvement.”

Duffy dismissed those accusations.

“The results are even more impressive considering the process was heavily tilted in favor of charter groups, which paid for fleets of buses to ferry people to the polls,” Duffy alleged.

Terry Marcellus, the education chair for the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, expected the vote to be in favor of the local school plans.

“It is totally unsurprising, considering what happened at Westchester High School,” he said.

He was referring to a school governance vote at the high school last year where a proposal by teachers and parents was chosen over a plan backed by Marcellus, the LAX Coastal Area Chamber of Commerce, the local council, and some Westchester residents and business interests.

Zimmer agrees with Duffy that the advisory vote has a message for the district and charter schools.

“I was not surprised that (the local teacher plans) won a majority of the vote. But I was surprised that they won a plurality of the vote,” Zimmer said.

The board member said he sees the results of the election as a sign that despite the problems of the district, parents still greatly support their teachers.

“I think it shows that by and large, whatever the problems they have with LAUSD or public education in general, parents like their teachers. I think that was the overwhelming reason why they voted the way that they did,” he said.

Petruzzi said he hopes the school board will disregard the advisory vote.

“How could you consider it?” he asked. “It means absolutely nothing.”

Zimmer thinks the plans that were submitted by teachers and parents also played a factor in the election.

“The local plans were really good,” he said. “They reflected a knowledge and an understanding of children and families that (outside operators) don’t see everyday.”

Marcellus views the teachers union as a politically skilled organization that works to keep community members out of the loop.

“They are very effective at politics and keeping information from the community,” he claimed.

Zimmer acknowledged that he was not in complete agreement with all of UTLA’s tactics, but he also feels that the Parent Revolution essentially threw down the gauntlet with LAUSD teachers.

“When you declare war on people, you have to expect them to act like combatants,” the school board member reasoned. “UTLA is acting like a combatant, and when you declare war on someone, it is unrealistic to expect them to act in a different way.

“I had hoped that the Parent Revolution would have forged a different path, but they showed no willingness or openness for a different path.”

Duffy said in an interview with The Argonaut days after the vote that he felt the advisory vote should give the chosen school plans momentum going into the upcoming school board meeting.

“We’ll be putting together parents, teachers and members of the community and reminding certain board members that they should listen to the voices of parents,” he said.

Duffy also challenged Austin’s organization to acknowledge the results of the advisory vote.

“Let’s see if they actually believe in the tenets of parent empowerment,” the UTLA president said.

Petruzzi said that Cortines and the school board should wait until next year to decide on who will control the new LAUSD schools.

“I think that the vote is completely invalid,” Petruzzi reiterated. “Only if I were a third-rate dictator would I be impressed by this vote.”

Zimmer said those who disagree with the union’s rhetoric should not take the results of the advisory vote lightly.

“I think that people disregard the vote at their own peril,” he warned. “I hope the lesson that the charter movement learns is that you can’t go negative on teachers.”

Duffy said the final decision on who will operate the new schools should be decided on merit, and nothing else.

“When making the final decision on who will run these schools, LAUSD Superintendent Cortines and the school board must listen to the parents and respect their choice, regardless of political pressure from outside operators,” he said.

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