Why The LAUSD Superintendent's Calendar Matters To The School District's Strike-Ready Teachers

UTLA released calendars listing LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner's work schedule and meetings over his first few months on the job on Oct. 3. (Photo by Kyle Stokes for LAist)

In the middle of a tense contract fight that could end in the first teachers' strike in Los Angeles since 1989, the district's teachers union went on the offensive this week with L.A. Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner.

The union, United Teachers Los Angeles, obtained a copy of Beutner's official schedule and on Wednesday released an analysis highlighting the number of meetings Beutner took at exclusive restaurants or in private clubs. The union also raised the question of whether he used an LAUSD credit card to pay for his pricey meals.

But UTLA's 30,000-plus members may be more interested in whom Beutner was meeting.

KPCC/LAist got a copy of the superintendent's calendar Wednesday. You can peruse it below.

A union analysis showed the LAUSD superintendent held at least 11 meetings with top charter school supporters, advocates and operatives during his first four months on the job — including meeting billionaire philanthropist and political donor Eli Broad.

That's potentially an alarm bell for LAUSD teachers. That's because some teachers fear Beutner might be willing to increase the number of students enrolled in charter schools.

Why do they care? Because more students enrolled in charter schools could mean less money for traditional campuses, which could undermine district finances and, in turn, the power of the teachers union.

WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT WE KNOW BEUTNER TOOK THESE MEETINGS?

For the general public, the revelation of these meetings might not be of high interest — but the news will certainly resonate with UTLA's rank-and-file.

Many of the union's 30,000 teachers, nurses, school psychologists and others share union leaders concerns about charter schools. A critical worry is centered on the impact growth in charter school enrollment would have on the school district's precarious finances.

Many UTLA members distrusted Beutner even before word of these meetings trickled out — or before they voted in August to authorize a possible strike in the near future.

Now, the question is whether knowledge of who Buetner has been meeting with will make the union's rank-and-file less willing to cut a deal with him to head off a strike.

WHY ARE TEACHERS SO WORRIED ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS?

For starters: a charter school is a public school that's run by a non-profit organization, not a school district like L.A. Unified. That means when a child enrolls in a charter school, the state funding for teaching that child gets sent to the non-profit organization running that charter. The school district that might've otherwise enrolled that child doesn't get any of that funding.

Many LAUSD teachers see charter schools as an existential threat to the school district. Enrollment in Los Angeles charter schools has grown by more than 40 percent since 2011; charters now enroll more than 116,000 students. During the same period, enrollment in LAUSD-run schools has fallen by 93,000 students.

Charter school advocates attribute the growth to parental choice; that charters give parents an alternative place to enroll their child. Charter advocates frequently dismiss claims that they're set on "privatizing" education, as UTLA puts it.

However, teachers union leaders believe there are much bigger forces behind the growth of charters — and as evidence for this claim, they still point to a document leaked to the press in 2015. "The Broad Plan" — so-called because philanthropist and charter supporter Eli Broad had been shopping it around — was the draft outline of a strategy to double the number of charter school seats in L.A.

Many pro-charter organizations have since backed away from the plan, saying "the Broad Plan" existed only as a draft and was never actually implemented. Their disavowals have done little to quell charges from UTLA that charter advocates are out to "privatize" the nation's public education system — that is, undermine school districts and, in turn, weaken public sector unions.

Beutner has previously told audiences that he views the debate over charter schools and their role in the district as a "distraction" from bigger issues, like the district's looming budget deficits. Beutner contends the growth of charters cannot fully explain the growing gap between the district's revenues and expenditures. (UTLA leaders would debate him on both points.)

FILE - Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents L.A. Unified teachers, speaks during a rally in Feb. 2016. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

WITH WHOM DID BEUTNER MEET?

Beutner met with Broad and Gerun Riley, president of the Broad Foundation, on July 13, 2018.

The hourlong encounter in Brentwood was one of 11 meetings UTLA officials highlighted in an analysis of the calendar, which the union also released Wednesday:

The union also highlighted a phone call between Beutner and Jed Wallace, the CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, among the calendar entries it thought showed too close of ties with the pro-charter sector.

Among the other calendar items UTLA noted as problematic:

  • A phone call with Arnold Steinberg, formerly a strategist for the Prop. 209 anti-affirmative action campaign.
  • A breakfast with Frank Baxter, a member of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools charter board and prominent Republican philanthropist
  • Two meetings with Parent Revolution head Seth Litt. Parent Revolution has in the past helped organize parents to file "parent trigger" petitions to wrest control of a neighborhood school away from LAUSD.
  • Two separate meetings with leaders of organizations that run charter schools. On June 13, he met with the leaders of three networks — STEM Prep, KIPP L.A. and Green Dot Public Schools. On June 26, he met with the leader of a fourth: Citizens of the World charter schools.

Overall, the meetings the union highlighted represent only a fraction Beutner's schedule. District spokeswoman Shannon Haber said in an email that Beutner "has had more meetings with labor leaders ... and met with principals, teachers, students and community organizations."

In fact, the superintendent met with UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl at a Chinatown café on Beutner's third day on the job.

UTLA officials obtained Beutner's schedules through a public records request — though union leaders criticized the district for failing to hand over the records until the union filed a lawsuit. District officials said Wednesday the delay in releasing the records was an honest mistake.

HOW UNUSUAL IS IT FOR AN LAUSD SUPERINTENDENT TO MEET WITH THESE GROUPS?

Beutner's predecessor, ex-LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King, met with some similarly high-profile supporters of charter schools and with leaders of charter organizations during her first several weeks in office, according to copies of her schedules obtained by KPCC.

Like Beutner, King also held a handful of meetings with the leaders of individual charter schools.

On January 23, 2016, King met with Myrna Castrejón and William Siart, leaders of the organization Great Public Schools Now — the group that sprouted out of the initial "Broad Plan," although the group says their mission differs greatly from the one outlined in that document.

UTLA cited Beutner's attendance at a forum with Castrejón as one of the meetings it found problematic.

However, King's schedule does not reflect a call with the head of the California Charter Schools Association during her first weeks on the job.

And unlike King, Beutner's schedule shows calls and meetings with several high-level leaders in the business world, like Greg Maffei, the head of Liberty Media, or NBC Universal executive Jeff Schell.

And then there's the meeting with Broad — though his longstanding relationship with Beutner makes their meeting a special case. The two men once attempted to purchase the L.A. Times together. L.A. Magazine reported Broad's connections were instrumental in helping Beutner secure his first job as deputy mayor.

WHAT'S NEXT IN THE CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS?

UTLA released the calendars at a news conference Wednesday while negotiating teams for the union and the district met with state mediators. It was their second meeting with the mediator.

The release of the calendar documents is not the type of story that's likely to cool temperatures around the mediation table.

Beutner has said he doesn't expect the two sides to come to agreement in mediation. If his prediction comes true, a formal "fact-finding" process would begin, during which a panel of experts would assess the truth of the two sides' competing claims.

That still means a possible strike is likely some time away — UTLA cannot legally call a strike until after fact-finding.

On Wednesday, UTLA and LAUSD representatives agreed to meet with the mediators again on Oct. 12.

Read Beutner's full schedule here:


UPDATES:

5:11 p.m.: This article was updated with a tweet summarizing the response of California Charter Schools Assn.


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