Organizing our School-Site Strength in 2017

Our goals are ambitious, our adversaries are powerful, and the stakes are high

I hope your winter break was wonderful. You deserve it.

We are going to walk shoulder-to-shoulder through 2017, a crucial year.

As with every year, our priorities in 2017 will be driven by the school site and classrooms. January reconnections with two people I hadn’t spoken with for years — way too long — reinforced this for me.

 

A student leader, financial analyst, and the #SchoolTrump actions

Louis Ramos was my student at Crenshaw High School, Class of 2009. He has since graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a BA in Business Economics and now works as a financial analyst at Warner Music Group.

In his time at the Social Justice and Law Academy at Crenshaw High, Louis developed into a powerful leader. By his senior year, the economy had crashed and public schools faced massive layoffs. Several of Louis’s teachers during his high school years received pink slips.

Louis organized a group of students to travel to an LAUSD local district satellite office about a mile away from Crenshaw. They picketed outside and demanded that the building be sold and that the District make cuts away from the classroom, so teachers and classrooms could be spared. This was the first of many actions Louis led.

A few weeks ago, Louis emailed me. I hadn’t heard from him in five years. He had heard about the preparations for our January 19 #SchoolTrump actions, and he wanted to get some of his neighbors and co-workers to participate at a school. They knew that things happening on the national stage were going to have a direct impact on our classrooms, whether it is federal cuts affecting the District budget, federal funding for charter expansion and vouchers siphoning enrollment and money away from community schools, or aggressive expansion of deportation and destabilizing families. Louis and several of his contacts participated on January 19, had a great experience, and UTLA has some new allies.

It was great to reconnect with Louis, and it reminded me to look at the January 19 actions with fresh eyes. Every action we engage in, all of which are rooted in school-site issues, provides an opportunity for new leaders to develop, for new relationships and alliances to emerge.

The student leaders at Arleta High School in the East San Fernando Valley who participated on the 19th were incredibly inspiring, and several of them were quoted in the Los Angeles Times. At the same time that they were speaking to reporters, on the other side of the Valley, student leaders at El Camino Real Charter High School were holding shields in a vibrant rally that received countless honks of support from passing motorists. Simultaneously, in downtown L.A., in the pouring rain, 75 hotel and restaurant workers, with the union UNITE-HERE, many of whom are the parents of our students, marched with educators at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. And, over on the Westside, in Mar Vista, community college professors with AFT 1521, who teach many of our students as they make their way after high school, joined hundreds at Grand View Elementary.

Our school sites, and the relationships we have there, from Louis Ramos, to his contacts, to other unions, are the beating hearts of a movement.

 

A retiree, a hero, and health benefits

Later in January, I spoke at a UTLA-Retired meeting. This is always a joy, reconnecting with friends, and honoring those upon whose shoulders we stand.

It was fantastic to see Myles Goodson and his wife at the meeting — I hadn’t seen them in five years.

I taught for many years with Myles. After he retired, he continued to work in South L.A. schools as a substitute educator. Myles was a passionate educator, bringing creativity and life into history instruction. He was a leader at our school site — one of the educators you always went to if you needed advice.

Myles and I shared a special connection. He was a graduate of Morgan State University, and I grew up down the street from, and was shaped by, Bowie State University, both historically black colleges and universities in Maryland.

As Myles and I reconnected, I heard of the great things he is doing, as well as some of the health challenges he is facing. He commented on how important our health benefits have been to him and his family, when he was an active employee, and now as a retiree. He is so right — and UTLA has been so right for so many years to ensure that our educators have top-of-the-line health care while active, and top-of-the-line health care when retired. We have the awesome task of educating and taking care of Los Angeles’s children and adult students, and we often do this for our entire work lives, and as the work of our life. In turn, our employer owes it to us to take care of us and our families, for our lifetimes, with good health benefits.

As we gear up to protect active and retiree health benefits in 2017, I will be thinking of Myles, and how important he has been to his community.

 

School-site struggles and our contract reopeners

Your experiences at school sites and work sites, like my experiences at Crenshaw, drive our bargaining in contract reopeners.

When I think of the 10% raise that we won in 2014-2015, and the 7% salary increase demand we currently have on the table for the third and final year of the 2014-2017 contract, I think of Cathy Garcia, whom I taught next door to at Crenshaw. Cathy was an excellent teacher, a brilliant mathematician, a first-five-years-in-the-profession teacher whom we desperately needed to keep. Cathy was trying to pay off college debt, live in an incredibly expensive city, and take care of working-class parents who were beginning to have health issues—all while, as we all do, investing some money in her own classroom, in her own development as a teacher.

Cathy left the profession a few years ago because of a variety of issues, but it sure would have helped hold onto her had our salaries been higher. The fight for a salary increase is here. Our reopener demand for a 7% increase retroactive to July 1, 2016, will be complemented by salary demands for the 2017-2018 successor contract. The 7% demand is a substantially higher increase than surrounding districts have given and is higher than the percentage growth in new monies coming to the District from the state, but it was arrived at with knowledge that L.A. will need to attract educators because it will be disproportionately affected by the oncoming educator shortage.

When I think of our reopener demand around class size—kill Section 1.5 of the class-size article, shut the door once and for all on the way the District subverts class-size caps and averages—I think of Scott Allen, who taught down the hall from me. Scott was always grading papers, every time I saw him, like so many of us, overwhelmed with essays and paperwork. That work was made all the more challenging by having more than 40 students in each of his classes. Our students deserve more of our attention. We deserve the ability to focus as professionals on what matters most: relationships with students that don’t get drowned out by the sheer size of our classes, our caseloads, our paperwork.

When I think of our reopener demands around school discipline, I think of Roichelle Dixon from Crenshaw, one of the best school psychologists I have ever met, and Bill Vanderberg, our elected dean for several years, who now works at Foshay Learning Center. To truly address student discipline, to truly build positive behavior support and restorative justice in authentic ways that work for everyone and that are sustainable, we need a dramatic increase in health and human services staff like Roichelle: professionals whose caseloads are manageable enough to work with students one-on-one when necessary, with families when necessary, in support of what happens in the classroom. And, as Bill has spent years fighting for, we need contract language that requires administrators to develop school safety and discipline plans with stakeholders, in which day-to-day implementation protocol is crystal clear, is tracked, and is enforceable through the grievance process and, if necessary, pressure at the school and local district level.

When I think of our reopener demands around academic freedom and limiting the incursions of standardized testing on instructional time and teacher professionalism, I think of Luisa Lowe and Sarah Rodriguez, two of the most creative English teachers I have ever met. They used literature, poetry, writing, small groups, drama, and presentations to make their classes about life, about our students’ inner-most dreams, fears, and potential—and built tremendous academic skills among students in the process. Luisa and Sarah were constantly frustrated by periodic assessments and other out-of-context assessments that the District brought in. We need teacher discretion to rule what assessments are used.

When I think of our reopener demands around transfers and school restructuring, I think of students Anita Parker and Jose Sotelo, and their mothers Angelita and Nidia, respectively, who fought so hard to stop the top-down reconstitution and restaffing of Crenshaw High School. When I spoke to Nidia not long ago, she was so dispirited that the practice had continued at Wilmington Middle School last year. It is a practice that destabilizes schools and students, insults our profession, and gives far too much control to administrators. It must stop.

 

Bringing it all together, with strike capacity at the core

It is exciting to be at the bargaining table again around the above reopener demands. It is the intersection of these reopeners with several other strands that makes 2017 unique.

  • On March 7, we must reelect Steve Zimmer and elect Imelda Padilla to the LAUSD School Board. Former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan has put $1 million into the effort to defeat Zimmer, and more millions will follow. The California Charter Schools Association is playing big in both races. We need a School Board that will protect active and retiree health benefits and approve good reopener and successor agreements.
  • From February 7 to the end of the month, all members will be participating in a bargaining survey to shape our demands in 2017-2018 successor contract bargaining, which we hope to initiate in April. Chapter chairs will be holding meetings in late January and early February to discuss priorities collectively. Survey participation online will follow throughout the month. We know protecting health benefits and increasing salary are top priorities, and we need to know your additional priorities.
  • As we anticipate the expiration of our health benefits agreement in December 2017, and we fight aggressively to protect active and retiree health benefits, we will continue into our third year of successful relationship-building with the other seven unions representing LAUSD employees. We collectively bargain for health benefits with these other unions, and our collaboration will be powerful.
  • We will continue our work to bring forward policy fights and legislation that call the question on the state of California on the two major issues that can only, at their root, be dealt with in Sacramento: infusing additional funding into public schools and regulating charter school growth/holding charter schools accountable.
  • We will continue the work that was built out of the January 19 action and was reflected so movingly in the Women’s Marches of January 21: working with an emerging citywide and national movement to push back on the most dangerous aspects of the Trump/DeVos agenda.

Our goals are ambitious, our adversaries are powerful, and the stakes are high. We will need to build the real capacity to strike to ensure protection of what we have and to ensure new victories that advance the Schools L.A. Students Deserve for our members, students, and schools.

This doesn’t mean we will strike. It means we need the organized strength to do so if attacks continue, policies remain unchanged, or unacceptable District proposals remain on the negotiations table. Strike readiness is complemented by crucial strands of parent/community organizing, bargaining strategy, communications, and political advocacy. We are well on our way to an unprecedented strike readiness build. We started at the July 2016 Leadership Conference and have had citywide steering committee meetings of more than 100 key member leaders on both September 21, 2016, and January 13, 2017, with more to come.

Clearly, 2017 will be a huge year. We will take on the challenges together and we will win together in 2017, as we did in 2014 by getting rid of John Deasy; in 2015 by protecting health benefits, getting the 10% raise, and electing allies to the School Board; and in 2016 by keeping RIF layoff notices off the table, winning additional staffing at schools, fighting the privatizers, and passing Props. 55 and 58. The key is we must do this together, with everyone involved.

And, when we need a little wind in our sails, let’s remember, we’ve got people all over the city like my student Louis Ramos and retired hero educator Myles Goodson — and, most importantly, we have each other. Let’s do this.