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Union Election in Los Angeles: Meet Candidate Solkovits

Coleen Bondy, Los Angeles teacher, has prepared special coverage of the upcoming teacher's union election in her city. Here is her report:

United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers' union for Los Angeles Unified School District, is holding elections for all of its major offices this spring. Ballots will be mailed out to the membership beginning Feb. 25.

Effective leadership has never been so critical to UTLA members as it is now. Teachers have endured years of brutal budget cuts, including furlough days, pink slips, increased class sizes, and have gone seven years without a raise.

In addition, LAUSD has implemented programs such as Breakfast in the Classroom that are wildly unpopular with teachers, who already deal with cleanliness issues in the classroom because of a lack of adequate custodial staffing.

LAUSD's school board appears to be charging full steam ahead on a plan to equip every student with an iPad, at a total cost of about $1 billion. It is planning to use bond money that voters specifically earmarked for construction of new facilities and maintenance of old ones.

Perhaps most important of all, many LAUSD teachers perceive that the district has been hijacked by employees and school board members who are bent upon implementing corporate-style reforms in the district, without the approval of parents or teachers.

With so much at stake this year, we asked the candidates running for president of UTLA to answer the same 10 questions. The questions were emailed to all of the candidates in January. More information can also be found here.

We kick off the series with Gregg Solkovits. He taught for 28+ years at James Monroe High School and is currently the UTLA Secondary Vice President.

1. How did you come to be a teacher in Los Angeles?

I came from a family of teachers and union activists.  My father taught at Taft High School in the West San Fernando Valley for 29 years.  My mother was a substitute teacher and the first female president of UTLA.  Even though I started my working life as a journalist,I have always loved to work with kids of all ages and so, became a teacher and union activist.

2. Why are you running for President of UTLA?

I am running for UTLA President because I do not think that UTLA is ready to the do the many things it has to do to meet the significant challenges that its members are facing.  As a 33+ year activist and union leader, I have worked with others to organize dozens of schools, I have been on bargaining teams that negotiated contracts with pay raises, and I have been a strike leader.  I KNOW what UTLA looks like when it is ready to stand up to the district AND to work with the community. UTLA simply is not ready to do either of those things, and I think it is because UTLA has lacked strong leadership the last three years.

3. Have you been involved with any Gates-funded education reform projects such as Educators 4 Excellence? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I have NOT been involved in any such groups or projects, but I do think UTLA needs to embrace the ideas and concerns of ALL its members, regardless of whether or not they ascribe to the "traditional" longheld ideas within our union.  Lack of unity within UTLA is one of great weaknesses right now.  I will bring all factions of UTLA together, and that will make us much stronger than we are today.

4. How will the recent iPad purchase affect LAUSD over the next few years?

Although giving ALL students access to technology is critical, I think the IPad venture was ill conceived, rushed, and poorly planned. It is being even more poorly executed.  There should have been authentic community input, as well as thorough research into the options.  I am particularly worried that it will be difficult or impossible to get future bonds approved when you tell voters "tax yourself to build buildings" and then use that money to buy short-lived technology instead.  Its kind of like using a credit card to buy groceries, and will cause budget issues for the district down the line.

5. What do you think of recent changes in the way teachers are evaluated in LAUSD?

Teacher evaluation should be about making teachers better professionals.  Thats why a union task force I helped lead worked for 18+ months developing a Teacher SUpport and Development initiative -- essentially UTLA's position on what a teacher evaluation system should look like.  But to do it right takes a lot of money, and do not see either the state or the district providing sufficient resources to help make a truly robust evaluation system possible.  And you can not do good evaluation on the cheap.

6. Are you in favor of implementing the Common Core State Standards in LAUSD? If so, why? If not, why not?

The district's rollout of Common Core Standards has, unfortunately, been prototypical LAUSD -- top down, with little to no authentic input from anyone but a handful of bureaucrats, and being done way too fast.  We need to take our time and get it right.  Help teachers and parents to understand WHAT the Common Core Standards are, HOW they will change the way we teach our students, and then IMPLEMENT it slowly.  Instead, the district seems to be in a rush so it can proclaim to the world "we are the first to implement Common Core completely."  This is NOT working well, and can NOT work well.  The Common Core Standards are a profoundly different approach to teaching.  It will take time to implement it properly, so that students are not lost in the transition, like happened decades ago when we switched to "new math" and created a bunch of math-challenged students.

7. What do you believe are the three most important issues facing teachers/UTLA today? How would you address those issues as president?

The three most important issues are 1) too many people trying to sell too many products/programs to districts because they see billions of dollars in education budgets  2) a lack of consistent financial support for schools and 3) constant castigating of teachers and health and human services professionals as the problem with our schools, rather than lauding them for the sacrifices they make every day to educate and support the children of our communities.

As to problem #1:  I would require school districts to act transparently, and insist on public hearings that are done at times and places that the public can actually attend, BEFORE any major contracts with any vendors (like Pearson and Apple) are agreed upon.  That vetting should include making sure that the programs and products are high quality and will give the students of the LAUSD what they need to be properly educated.  And the school board needs to be more than a rubber stamp for the Superintendent.

For problem # 2, we need to change our tax system, so that there are streams of revenue that schools can count on from year to year, instead of the current approach, which means in good times, schools are properly funded and in tough times, money is taken from schools to keep taxes low and to pay for other state obligations.  We need a split property tax roll, so that commercial properties are assessed the same way as residential.  When a home is sold, it is reassessed upwards.  When Universal Studios has been sold (three times at least in the last 20 years), using loopholes in the law, that property is NOT reassessed, keeping taxes low and depriving the state of revenue that could be used to adequately fund schools.  We are also the only oil producing state without an oil severance tax.  That is costing the state billions of dollars in revenue each year.

Solving Problem #3 is tougher because it depends on a news media that is becoming increasingly superficial to do good reporting, and it requires unions which are underfunded to do a better job on PR, and it requires politicians to do more than pander to whatever issue the polls show will get them votes. Fortunately, survey after survey shows tremendous support and respect for the classroom teacher.  But these numbers have been dropping as the media focuses on child molestations (which are horrible but quite rare), misreports the meaning of test scores, and allows school boards to act in virtual seclusion.  THe union MUST at the very least be sure that it tells the story of the great things going on in the classroom every day, and MUST correct the inaccuracies so rampant in the media today.

8. What has surprised you since you began running for this office?

SInce I have run for office many times, it is hard to be "surprised", but what is pleasing to me is the number of chapter chairs and union activists who understand just how important experience is to being a good president.  The UTLA presidency is NOT the kind of position one "learns on the job" at if one is to do a good job.  I feel that my 33+ years of experience in representing members, of organizing schools and of working with the community and the media will be key factors in this election.

9. How do you feel about Breakfast in the Classroom at the elementary, middle and high school levels?

Like so many other programs that the LAUSD implements, BIC is a great idea done wrongly.  There was NO parent input, NO teacher input, and NO local administrative input before BIC was rolled out.  Everyone wants kids to have healthy breakfasts in the morning.  But BIC has NOT been a success everywhere it has been implemented, for many reasons.  Instead, it is a program being run by former LAUSD bureaucrats who just rolled it out and proclaimed it successful.  Instead, schools should have been asked to decide HOW to implement getting kids breakfast in the morning AFTER parents were asked IF they wanted their children fed in the mornings. Instead, tons of food is thrown out every day because the kids don't want it, classrooms are being infested with vermin and bugs because food is being consumed and dropped in the classroom at the same time there is inadequate custodial support, and teachers and students are losing valuable teaching time so food can be distributed, eaten and cleaned up during class time.  Think there is a problem here?

10. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think this is a critical election for UTLA.  The very future of the union is at stake.  Its constitution was written in 1969, and its structure does not work to its members' benefits.  Less than 15 percent of the members vote in elections, meaning some constituencies within the union dominate the discussion.  And factionalization is rampant within our union.  This MUST stop, and I will work hard to forge the consensus UTLA HAS to have if it is to regain the power and the influence that it has had in past years.  When our union is strong, it is better for our schools, because a strong, engaged UTLA has been the driving force for just about every successful school reform that has ever been implemented in the LAUSD -- School Based Management, LEARN, Pilot Schools, Expanded School Based Management ALL are products of UTLA and ALL have moved student achievement.  As president, I will bring us together and make the union a powerful force for our members and for our students.

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