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'Thin contracts' will be required for groups bidding to take over L.A. schools

May 10, 2011 |  8:54 pm

L.A. school officials have approved amended rules for how groups will compete to take control of new and low-performing schools in the state’s largest school system, and the revisions already have raised objections from the teachers union.

The most controversial new provision, passed at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, requires teams of district teachers to use a so-called thin contract in their proposals. This thin contract would replace the much larger -- critics say cumbersome -- collective bargaining agreement with United Teachers Los Angeles.

This was among the changes recommended by Supt. John Deasy regarding the process through which groups inside and outside the district can make bids for campuses. The two-year-old initiative, dubbed “public school choice,” is one of the nation’s most watched school-reform strategies.

In many cases, teams of teachers, frequently working with district administrators and the teachers union, have won the right to manage schools along with new freedoms to do so. The strategy also has opened the door for independently operated charter schools, most of which are non-union, to claim new campuses built to relieve overcrowding.

Some union activists say thin contracts diminish both employee rights and the union’s legitimate influence over school operations. Other teachers defend the thin contracts, saying they provide needed flexibility at schools and potentially give teachers more meaningful input.

Either way, any rules governing thin contracts must legally be ironed out through negotiations with the union, said Betty Forrester, a senior UTLA official. She also criticized the school board for moving ahead with revisions without consulting the union, as L.A. Unified officials had previously pledged.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa applauded the thin contract mandate.

"Teachers throughout L.A. Unified are clamoring for a contract that gives them more control at the individual school level,” Villaraigosa said. “Teachers and administrators know their schools best and they should be the ones making the critical decisions for their own schools."

An expected showdown never materialized over another issue: whether public voting should continue to occur on competing reform proposals. These nonbinding elections have led to repeated accusations of misconduct. For the most part, teacher- and union-backed plans attracted the most votes.

Deasy said he did not favor resuming the current process, which creates separate tallies for parents, employees, community members and high school students. Such elections exacerbated “political tensions” and led to “unhealthy electioneering,” he said.

School board member Steve Zimmer had been expected to defend these elections. Instead, he said he would wait to see Deasy’s specific proposal for community involvement. That element is still under development.

-- Howard Blume