UPDATED, August 23, 2013: The OC Register reports that Melendez did not in fact file for retirement upon leaving Santa Ana Unified School District. This is despite her own blog post on her retirement, which cites wanting to spend more time with her aged parents as a reason for her early departure. Why the conflicting information? How very odd. Did she know that she would be chosen to act as Garcetti’s education advisor as early as May, 2013?
Newly-elected Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti recently announced the selection of Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana as his Deputy of Education and Workforce Development. With that appointment, Garcetti prompts more questions rather than settling the issue of what sort of approach he’ll take to education as mayor of the city that has the second largest urban school district in the nation.
Garcetti’s predecessor, Antionio Villagraigosa, earned brickbats from teachers’ union members who recalled his days as a leader within the union, only to later become an elected official enamored of “mayoral control” of public schools. (His attempts to formalize the process of taking over and implementing his own plans for “failing” public schools — in part upending collective bargaining agreements — was only partially successful, though Villaraigosa continued to advocate for this type of reform throughout his term.) Charter lobbyists and others who push a “free-market” or unregulated approach to school governance praised Villaraigosa. After all, the city’s best-known philanthropist, real estate mogul Eli Broad, worked closely to achieve similar goals. Broad, creator of a “Superintendent’s Academy” to groom high-level school administrators to carry out his charter school agenda, is important for reasons I’ll discuss in a bit when it comes to Melendez.
Candidate Garcetti’s low-key pandering to corporate school privatizers as compared to Wendy Greuel’s full-throated use of Parent Revolution talking points had given LAUSD public school supporters hope that he might steer the city in a new direction. During his campaign, he talked a great deal about how he’d helped align city resources to help a Mt. Washington school improve a community center and school library. Could this have been a welcome turn to a Community Schools model, a new path that Villaraigosa never adequately explored? Let’s not forget that even after the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012, Los Angeles schools are still lacking school nurses, staff psychologists, librarians, art/music teachers and other important staff cut during the Great Recession of the past five years. Aligning city-district resources to supplement wrap-around services needed by every child in struggling neighborhoods would’ve been key to addressing poverty that affects a large percentage of LAUSD students.
Instead, Garcetti chose Melendez above the grave concerns voiced by LAUSD parents. They visited with staff just recently, but as other records unearthed by KPCC show, the choice had been made long before.
So who is Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, and why is she so problematic?
A simple Google search reveals that she was former Superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, she presided over an increasingly sour relationship with the teacher’s unions there where funds for the district appeared to go to expensive consultants instead of to classrooms while teacher working conditions deteriorated and their pay stayed frozen, her relationships with the Santa Ana Unified School Board were rocky, and she suddenly resigned in May, 2013, to spend more time with her aging parents and family.
A deeper Google search shows that prior to her position as Santa Ana Unified Superintendent, and before her service in the Secretary of Education’s office in the Obama administration, Melendez was party to a lawsuit filed when she was Superintendent at Pomona Unified from 2006 to 2009. The key part in contention is quoted below:
Since at least the 2005-2006 school year, Respondents [including Melendez as top executive officer of the district — ed.] have misclassified hundreds of qualified or ceritificated teachers as temporary, instead of as probationary, in clear violation of the Education Code provisions limiting the hiring of new teachers as temporary.
The significance of this issue is that probationary teachers are new to the profession/district and this is a first step toward gaining full due process that comes with tenure. Temporary teachers are not eligible. The lawsuit cites numerous cases in which teachers who should’ve been hired as probationary were instead wrongly designated temporary, thereby denying them key workplace rights spelled out by the California Ed Code. In more than one instance cited in the lawsuit’s introduction, if 250 teacher openings had to be filled, and only 42 were for teachers on leave of absence and thus their replacements should’ve been designated temporary status, instead up to 249 positions were designated temporary instead of only 42 temporary. This wrongful classification is harmful to career prospects and issues like career trajectory and seniority. More importantly, it is against the law.
This is not about tenure — instead it’s very much like the class action case that was leveled against Microsoft for hiring (and sometimes rehiring over a lengthy period of time) “permatemp” “contractors” who were for all intents and purposes permanent employees doing years-long regular work for the corporation. When those “contractors” sued for benefits that they should’ve received as permanent employees, they won and Microsoft had to pay restitution. The point of a category like an “independent contractor” is not so that corporations can abuse the category and withhold benefits they would otherwise be required to provide to permanent employees. Yet that’s what Microsoft did and that’s analogous to the issues at stake in the Pomona Unified lawsuit.The principle is the same here, for lay purposes: teachers should not constitute a “permatemp” workforce where they are denied benefits and workplace rights. How do schools have any stability retaining and cultivating faculty if they treat teachers as “permatemps”? How are children well-served when teaching staff can undergo “churn” from one year to the next? How do teachers plan a career or improve over time if they have no assurance of a modicum of job stability?
Many of these issues were on the minds of LAUSD parents who arranged to speak with Heather Repenning, a Garcetti staffer.
They had seen the rumors regarding Melendez’s possible hiring and wanted to quickly insert their strong wishes that someone else with NO ties to the Broad Superintendent’s Academy be considered. One of their concerns was that backchannel mutter from Santa Ana regarding the satisfaction of their Board of Education with Melendez when she was Superintendent seemed to indicate that deep vetting was warranted at the very least.
So now the announcement’s been made: Melendez is the Director of Education and Workforce in Garcetti’s administration. Yet inconsistencies and blots on her ability to successfully negotiate with teachers in her district are still unanswered. Her arrangement to continue her pension in an unusual administrative maneuver that was approved by the LAUSD School Board at Tuesday, August 19, 2013’s meeting still has some grumbling — why the special allowances for someone who is a Broad partisan and aligned with LAUSD’s John Deasy (also a Broad Superintendents Academy graduate) when the neutral way forward for everyone would’ve been a person with a less declared position?
Recall that Deasy has a very rocky relationship with LAUSD’s teachers, who gave him a black eye with a near-unanimous vote of no confidence, and that charter co-locations with existing public schools is a sore point with both charter and neighborhood public schools.
As LAUSD parent Karen Wolfe points out, Garcetti’s own election — along with a new, voter-anabled majority on the LAUSD School Board that is much less seduced by charter school happy talk, and a freshly-decided and highly unpopular CORE waiver from NCLB provisions which obviously was shepherded through in some key ways by Melendez and has few fans — all indicate that the public’s will on the city’s public schools diverges from the likely path chosen by Garcetti’s Education Deputy at this time.