Community groups and Los Angeles Unified officials on Tuesday condemned an anonymous flier handed to Latino parents that threatened them with deportation if they supported plans to convert their neighborhood school to a charter.
Calling it an escalation in a series of "scare tactics," district officials and community advocates said distribution of the flier was timed to weaken one of LAUSD's boldest efforts to reform public education in Los Angeles.
LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines tried to reassure parents in a statement that nothing would happen if they signed a petition to support a charter school.
"Parents, please trust us," Cortines said. "No one will ever be deported for signing a petition for a charter school. ... No one in this district either knows or cares about the immigration status of our students or their parents."
The district's School Choice plan officially kicks off Monday when the district will begin examining bids from charters and other nonprofits to take over underperforming public schools.
One of the reasons the teachers union opposes the plan is because charters, which are publicly funded but operate independently from the district, do not have to hire union teachers.
To date, only parents from Gratts Elementary School in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles have reported receiving the flier. Written in Spanish, in capital letters, the flier says: "DO NOT SIGN ANY PETITIONS FOR A CHARTER SCHOOL BECAUSE YOU COULD BE DEPORTED.
Ultimately, the school board will decide who gets to take over a certain school or whether it will remain in district hands. But community preference will play a key role.
While United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers, was not directly linked to the flier, some district officials and community advocates said they believed it came from rogue union members.
But union leaders denounced the flier as "despicable."
"They think we had something to do with this. Well they must not have checked our track record," said UTLA president A.J. Duffy.
"We have always stood for immigrants rights... UTLA had nothing to do with this."
As news of the flier spread Tuesday, UTLA leaders also hosted a meeting with teachers, administrators and parents from the three dozen new and under-performing LAUSD campuses that have been selected for potential takeover under the district's reform plan.
The School Choice reform plan, approved in August, allows nonprofits to bid to take over new and under-performing schools. LAUSD expects to make all final decisions on the school proposals by February.
Under the plan parents can also elect to have their school taken over by another outside operator if the school is under-performing and a majority of parents support the plan.
Union leaders, who have threatened legal action against the plan, say for now they are focusing on supporting district teachers and staff as they develop proposals to operate their schools.
"I'm not going to say we don't have some members who are resisting change... You have that in any organization," said Julie Washington, UTLA's vice-president for elementary schools.
"But we want change more than anyone... We are the ones who have to work with children under the current deplorable conditions."
Community advocates, however, said union representatives have grown increasingly hostile at community meetings held with parents at the targeted schools.
District officials also criticized UTLA for not approving a plan that would allow for more pilot schools - small schools that use a more flexible teachers contract and give parents and staff decision-making power, but remain under district control.
Pilot schools are seen as one of the district's best options to keep control of schools under the reform plan, but the teachers union and the district have not agreed to expand their numbers beyond 10.
"As far as I am concerned we have opened the door for the kinds of reforms that the teachers union has asked for and they have shut the door on change," said LAUSD board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who authored the School Choice reform plan.
Longtime educators say this kind of politics can be expected with such an ambitious plan for school reform.
"This is about losing jobs, members and power," said Maria Casillas, a former LAUSD educator and president of the nonprofit Families in Schools.
"And in the end it is the children who lose out if schools are not improved."