A Mother’s Letter to LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner

DEAR MR. BEUTNER--You don’t know my two children who attend LAUSD schools or me.

We are faces in the midst of thousands spread throughout sprawling school boundaries. I wanted to write to you because LAUSD is a public school, therefore you work for me along with every child and parent in this district. You are negotiating with the teacher’s union on our behalf. As my employee, I want to remind you that you were hired to improve the quality of education for my children and I don’t see that happening. (Photo above: Austin Beutner, superintendent of LA’s schools.)

There are many legitimate issues brought up by UTLA. I want to know when are planning to fix all the other problems not being discussed that I have seen over the year as a school volunteer and parent. It seems that you have been brought in as a butcher to cut up the district, the union and any other fat that can be eliminated on the already thin front line. What scares me is that you have not been a teacher or worked at a school in LAUSD, so you do not have firsthand experience in this critical matter, children’s lives. The media portrays you as a ring leader, but it is evident that there are people behind the curtain. You are the wizard in Emerald City aka LAUSD headquarters which is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

If you venture down the yellow brick road, the continued lack of district support is glaring at the schools. These are issues that are not visible during your one-hour tours of campuses. During those times, teams of people are brought in before your arrival to sweep the dirt under the rug. I am sure your tours do not include watching teachers raise money for classroom supplies on sites like DonorsChoose or buying them with their own money. It is essential for you to see our view from down here, which is different from yours at the top. When you talk about not being able to cap class size, I know you have not seen the classrooms that cannot fit any more desks with children sitting on the floor. By not addressing the already full classes you are a constant advertisement for why parents should not send their children to LAUSD schools.

We chose LAUSD schools for our children because of the teachers we met at an open house and word of mouth of parents whose children succeeded under their guidance.

For the last eleven years, I have volunteered at my children’s schools while having a career. I have helped in numerous capacities from classroom assistance to serving consequent terms on School Site Councils and School-Based Management for all three schools my children attended.  It was at these councils where I saw the bleak budgets where decisions between hiring a librarian part-time or a nurse were frequent. There was never enough money. The design of these committees came with district input that always seemed to keep parents and educators at odds. As a committee, we were only allowed to make decisions on the single plan which determines the measurable focus for student success, testing schedules, and some budgetary decisions. There is no place in these councils or any other formal channel for other issues brought up by parents except under public comment.  Parents often felt frustrated that their voices had no impact and quit trying. When the district asked for parent feedback on late start school schedules, many enthusiastically jumped on the chance to give their opinions. Yet the survey results were never revealed, and the ultimate decision was decided without explanation by the district. Another successful effort to keep parents at arm’s length.

My children attended Richard Henry Dana Middle School in San Pedro. It is an old run down school that seems forgotten by the district with 50-year old bungalows that are falling apart. Improvements seem only to be made after articles I have written discussing the conditions like old smelly carpet in the library or lack of wheelchair access. But this is a beloved school, and the community continues to believe in Dana. Parents and staff gather in their free time for beautification days and to donate money and time to create murals. Teachers often clean their own classrooms because there are not enough janitors. Unfortunately, it is only a drop in the bucket and the school still looks as bleak as an aging prison. It is not the buildings or outdated bathrooms that make the school. The quality of my children’s teachers and caring staff make this school superior. My kids have learned things that I was doing while in college. The school, with an outstanding STEAM program, is led by a coordinator and principal who are known throughout San Pedro for their commitment to students. With over 70% of its school population qualifying as low-income, teachers have learned to teach students facing significant distress in their family life including sleeping in cars and on bus benches. Dana provides not only a quality education but a trauma-based learning model to try to reach all needs including new shoes or a bar of soap. When you walk through the doors of the school, the award-winning band plays in the distance, you feel the strong team of staff who work together with positive attitudes, but you never hear them complain about the district. They seemingly work around it.

A wheelchair ramp was put in at Dana after I wrote an article entitled “Can’t Walk, Can’t Learn at LAUSD”.  However, a large part of the schools still is not accessible for wheelchairs or crutches. Many children have to miss class for weeks if they are on crutches. The schoolhouse in Little House on the Prairie seemed to more amenities then Dana. They sit in the office, and teachers bring them their work. If a student gets injured or sick in that area of the school only accessible by stairs, it is very challenging for the staff. The school nurse has to maneuver a wheelchair up and down a steep sidewalk outside the campus to get the student to her office.

We were accustomed to LAUSD’s violation of ADA Standards that have gone on for decades from attending Point Fermin Marine Science Magnet Elementary School. The second floor of the building with classrooms has stair access only. When my son had ankle surgery, I watched in horror as he tried to use his crutches on a steep set of stairs to try to get to class. Later his entire classroom was moved downstairs by district movers to avoid it seemed a lawsuit or bad press. If LAUSD was genuinely concerned for safety, then they would offer this option to every parent, student, and staff who struggled to climb these stairs, not just my child. My children received an outstanding education at Point Fermin thanks to their dedicated teachers who created partnerships with the local aquarium. The stairs were a district issue and a constant reminder to me that they did not care about people with physical disabilities or injuries.

There were long periods in both elementary and middle schools when there were no nurses at my children’s schools. For students who needed special medical treatments or had to take medication during school hours, nurses would race in and out. There were parents at the school who were registered nurses who volunteered to help. The district would not allow it. Just like they prohibited volunteer psychologists and social workers who offered to run groups or provide other services with staff present.

Children with special needs seemed to receive the least amount of attention unless the parent knew how to fight the system. In elementary school, a child in my son’s class was non-verbal and hit the teacher and other students. He had no aide and wandered the campus during class time like other children often do in LAUSD schools. The school’s solution was to have him assist with photocopying in the office since no support was approved for him. A military mother at the school had children with disabilities. She had to sue the district for needed assistance for her kids after being denied services by LAUSD. After being ignored for so long it was her only option left to fight for the rights of her children, one was blind, and all had learning disabilities.

The schools my children attended all have a skeleton staff who make-up for the counselors and nurses that cannot be afforded. Employees are pulled frequently to far off Emerald City meetings that further deplete supervision. It was like going back in time to a place that did not understand conference calls or virtual meetings. The same went for parents who received robo calls for invitations to attend LAUSD meetings during rush hour traffic at dinner time or during a weekend. Options like Facebook live, or streaming meetings were not offered.

My oldest attends a program called School of Advanced Studies (SAS). It is advertised as a program but in reality only a line-up of classes that receives no extra funding. Thankful he has extraordinary teachers that makes this SAS program exceptional. There is also no funding for the Gifted Program and teachers are instructed to group the gifted students together in class. That is the extent of LAUSD’s gifted program. His counselor has 450 students to oversee plus other work she is supposed to do on campus. This leaves little time for the many high school students who need her attention but she manages.

As a mother, it is my job to protect my children, and I do not trust you. Apparently, you have been brought in to be the face of destruction, the butcher. But the reality is, I can imagine, that a group of people has been secretly developing a strategic plan for years to deflate a bloated district. There are two problems with this scenario. This is a public school district that should have transparency, not a private company where closed door deals are made. Secondly, the hatchet in your hand that is aimed at my children’s education is facing the wrong direction. You should turn it around and point it at your $350,000 salary and the 117 % raise given in 2017 to the LAUSD school board. Bet yet, crying poor is your number one argument. I am a mother of teenagers; you can’t pull the wool over my eyes.

LAUSD seems to be banking on the fact that their teacher workforce is over 70 % women and that educators typically get into the field of education to make a difference. This already marginalized population is easy prey as you try to keep their voices and pay low. Now you are faced with the reality that these bleeding hearts are now fighting back. How easy for you to say, that the teachers are in fact now hurting the students as you turn the victims into the villains, a typical oppression move. It is noted as well, that the elected school board members have been reticent during negotiations. I sense they are part of the team behind you, the mindless, cowardly lions in the dysfunctional world of LAUSD.

Neither my husband or I or our families are teachers or in a union. I did not get paid to write this letter. I want you to know my agenda is my children. You run a public school and therefore to stop the dysfunction it is time to be transparent.  Open the books, show the world how much you are paying for products and services. If LAUSD is broke, let’s look at everything. You have parents and community members that can find waste and save the schools money if given a chance. Create a foundation so corporations and businesses can adopt schools and donate. If you do not have enough money to make schools ADA compliant, then find the money in grants. You have 600,000 lives in your hands, two of them are my children. I chose LAUSD for the teachers who inspire my children, you should not make their jobs even more challenging. If you do, then the most critical people in this strike, the children, will lose.

(Jennifer Marquez has worked in social services for over 23 years. She writes a column in San Pedro Today Magazine and is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)