In race to run powerful teachers union: ideology up for grabs
Vanessa Romo | February 11, 2014
As campaigning begins in earnest at United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the second-largest teachers union in the country, the election for the presidency could be as much about ideology as which candidate has more foot-soldiers.
The union has shown signs of deep fracture lately, and with just 20 percent of the union’s 35,000 members expected to vote, the winner’s message will have to capture the votes of just a couple thousand teachers, in a long and drawn out process that begins on Feb. 25, and might not end until spring.
At the same time, with the union facing declining enrollment and revenue, the race is set to highlight a debate raging about its role, goals and tactics: should it stick to bread and butter issues of pay and contracts, or expand its mission to tackle race and equity? How confrontational should it be?
At this early juncture, 10 candidates, all of them men, are vying for attention in the first round of balloting (see ballot order here). Here’s a snapshot look at them:
As current president of UTLA, Fletcher has both the advantages and disadvantages of the incumbency. He’s become the target of left-leaning activists who see him as too moderate and unwilling use tactics like strikes and protests.
But at the first presidential candidate forum, Fletcher defended his leadership, saying that members are better off today than they were when he took office. As achievements, he pointed to furlough days being eliminated, the district’s putting a stop to annual RIF cycles, and that both Adult and Early Education were saved from complete elimination. He also pointed to the cap placed on the Public School Choice program (which allowed failing schools to be reconstituted as charters), and how he campaigned on behalf of two school board members – Steve Zimmer and Monica Ratliff – against reform backed candidates. He’s advocated for a pay hike and pressed the district to rehire teachers.
In 2011, Fletcher defeated seven other candidates and prevailed in a runoff, succeeding A.J. Duffy. Previously he has served on UTLA’s Board of Directors and in the House of Representatives. He started with LAUSD in 1978 as a teachers’ assistant and became a classroom teacher in 1983.
Well positioned as a formidable Fletcher opponent, Alex Caputo-Pearl is running at the top of a slate called “Union Power” – that includes seven colleagues running for other down-ballot positions.
Caputo-Pearl represents a faction within UTLA that is clamoring to push the union to the left. The platform includes social equity issues, creating a “credible threat of a strike”; a pushback on Breakfast in the Classroom; and a double digit salary increase. Caputo-Pearl told LA School Report last year that current leadership is “overwhelmingly defensive and reactive … taking things issue by issue,” and that’s not “going to help build quality schools.”
To strengthen UTLA’s leverage, Caputo-Pearl says he will develop a coalition branch and a communications department and will cultivate a team of researchers and experts “to frame the debate” on big issues like the Common Core.
Caputo-Pearl is currently a member of the UTLA Board of Directors and a teacher at Frida Kahlo High School. He spent more than half of his 22 years of teaching at Crenshaw High School, where he started the Coalition for Educational Justice. As a vocal opponent of reconstituting Crenshaw after it was found to be failing by the district, he was not rehired by the new administration. Website: unionpower2014.org
Now in his second term as UTLA Secondary Vice-President, Solkovits is well known figure within the union – his mother served as UTLA president starting in 1979, and he has held numerous leadership roles within UTLA.
Solkovits is seen as a moderate, and talks about trying to find new voices and ideas from union membership. “There are a lot of younger teachers, people with divergent points of view,” he tells LA School Report. “We need to listen to them.” On his website he says he will “appoint a diverse body of activists to propose changes to position UTLA for the fights of the future.”
At the first candidate forum, Solkovits argued it’s time to update UTLA’s governing structures and constitution. “The constitution was written in 1969 . . . and it sets up a system where there are a lot of chiefs without much input from average members.”
“I would get rid of it, rewrite it, and make it easier to pass motions.”
The position Solkovits is vacating to run for president will be the only open seat. Solkovits has been an LA Unified high school teacher for 28 years.
A dark horse in the race, Gaffney is a moderate who talks about needing to create a productive relationship with the LA Unified district. He became involved with UTLA in 2007 after the district-wide payroll system changeover, which left thousands of teachers without a pay-check.
“I had not been paid in three months and saw little being done on our behalf,” he says on his web site. “The lack of action and compassion I experienced encouraged me to run for Chapter Chair, a seat I ended up winning.” His plan as president includes a salary raise and a stipend for ongoing professional development. Gaffney may get some help from teachers who don’t usually get involved with ideology of the left. He was recently featured on the website of The Teacher Action Network, led by GreenDot founder, Steve Barr. Gaffney is a science teacher and basketball coach at Fulton College Prep in Van Nuys. He’s been a teacher for 28 years. Website: www.billforutlapres.com
With a battle cry of “Don’t let the rats steal your money,” Garcia doesn’t sugar coat his message. As a a former Navy corpsman and Gulf War veteran he calls the leadership of UTLA “incompetent” and “pseudo-leaders.”
Laid off in 2010 because of budget cuts, Garcia is now a substitute teacher who is a frequent speaker at LAUSD school board meetings. His flier, “Revolution Solution,” promotes lowering union dues (with the promise to return dues if UTLA fails to represent them), teacher self-evaluation, and making all officer and board meetings open to the public. Garcia is against UTLA’s push for a 17.6 percent salary increase. “Regular people are losing money,” he said at the presidential candidate forum in January, “and a raise would alienate us from them.” Instead, he says the union, especially teachers, “need to build up a positive image within the community.”
As a parent of four children in the school district, Garcia says he favors randomly searching students for weapons and contraband. He ran for UTLA president in 2011 and received just 1.5 percent of the vote, but this year he could benefit from having drawn the top position on the ballot.
Once a charter school teacher and supervisor, Lankster now calls for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools within LA Unified. He says of charters, “I know of the manipulation of test scores, the rip off of public funds provided for children, the exploitation of teachers who oftentimes cannot defend their labor or professional rights in many charter schools.”
Listed on the ballot as “Saul ‘the fighter’ Lankster,” he says he will negotiate a teacher pay raise in his first 18 months in office and put an end to policies that he says target well-paid teachers and land them in “teacher jail.” Now a teacher at Huntington Park High School, Lankster grew up in Alabama and, according to his website, was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and went to jail with Dr. Martin Luther King.
A candidate who is focused primarily on health issues, Mottus, is a familiar face at school board meetings where he has frequently spoken out to warn of adverse health effects of wireless digital devices. Last year he presented a motion before the UTLA house of representatives to adopt a policy that would require employees be informed when there are changes in their exposure to environmental hazards including electromagnetic radiation. The motion was adopted. His platform includes a plan to restore PPO medical coverage for members and include disability insurance in union dues.
Mottus is a registered coach for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and helps children and adults with learning disabilities and dyslexia. He works as a psychiatric social worker at the School Mental Health Department at LAUSD, focusing on students with behavioral problems.
Marcos Ortega II
A teacher who has been sitting in “teacher jail” since October for allegedly assaulting a student, Ortega has no other issue he cares more about.
Ortega wants to reform the investigation process for accused teachers. “Teachers are powerless,” he told LA School Report. “A student can accuse you and boom, you’re pulled out of a classroom and thrown in teacher jail for who knows how long,” he said. Ortega also says the current UTLA leadership has eroded the public’s perception of teachers. “The public isn’t with us anymore and I blame our representation,” he said. Finally, he’d like to change the UTLA’s identifying color from red to “anything else.”
Innocent O. Osunwa
A labor lawyer and English teacher at Stevenson Middle School, Osunwa is one of two candidates who did not participate in the first candidate forum. He is also a relative newcomer to the field, declaring his candidacy during the do-over filing period, which was opened by UTLA to allow potential candidates to pay their back dues to run.
Osunwa has had some previous political experience although his last run for office was probably less successful than he intended. As a write-in candidate for the 32nd Congressional District in California, he lost to Democrat Hilda Solis, 130,042 to 8.
“There was a mistake,” he told LA School Report. “I am a Republican. They listed me as an independent.”
One of his major campaign issues, he said, is the union’s labor contract with LA Unified. “It has too many loopholes in the way it is worded,” he said. “It has teacher protections, but on the other hand, teacher protections are taken away.” Also, he said, the system of teacher evaluation is “too subjective.”
A substitute teacher since 1995, Segal is one of two candidates who did not participate in the first candidate forum. He is the North Calling Area Chapter Chair on the Substitute Teachers Committee and was the NEA Substitute Teacher Caucus Chair from 2003 to 2011.
This is Segal’s second bid for the presidency. He ran in 2011 receiving just over 3 percent of the vote in a field of eight. If that race is any indication, Segal might have entered the race in order to throw his support behind the candidacy of current president Warren Fletcher. When he ran In 2011, Segal used the advertising space allotted to him in the election edition of the United Teacher to promote his competitor, or perhaps ally, Warren Fletcher.