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Learning Curves

L.A. School District’s Hire Under Fire as Ridley-Thomas Questions Mount

Why would LAUSD hire a man already on the carpet both for sexual harassment allegations and landing a suspiciously cushy job at USC?

Bill Raden

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Sebastian Ridley-Thomas photo by Mark.sanchez.asm

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

One political winner of last week’s Los Angeles teachers strike settlement was L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner. The former investment banker has made no secret of his desire to one day land the top job at L.A. City Hall, and signing a deal became his first real test of public leadership. Test Two may be more daunting — namely, explaining why he put a scandal-plagued and #MeToo-accused former State Assemblymember on the district payroll as a lobbyist.

The existence of the four-week lobbying contract between LAUSD and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (SRT), whose father is the powerful L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (MRT), came to light January 16, when the Assembly released findings that SRT likely sexually harassed staffers before resigning from the legislature in December 2017. The L.A. Times noted that SRT had accompanied Beutner and LAUSD school board president Mónica García to Sacramento on January 9 to help them drum up lawmaker opposition to the teachers strike. But it is the timing of Beutner’s January 11 bargaining offer two days later — sweetened by a $10 million pledge of county mental health money for school nurses by MRT — that is now raising eyebrows.

Not to worry, former Center for Governmental Studies president Robert Stern assured Learning Curves: “The only way [SRT’s hiring] would have been illegal is if [Mark] Ridley-Thomas had gone to Beutner and said, ‘You want $10 million? Hire my son.’ But is it unethical? Absolutely!”

In a written statement, an LAUSD spokesperson described the county pledge as originating in talks that “began last summer.” The lobbying contract, it affirmed, was terminated January 16, “once the Assembly investigation was made public.” (Neither of the Ridley-Thomases responded to requests for comment.) Left unexplained is why LAUSD would risk hiring somebody already under an ethics blowtorch from last August’s L.A. Times headlines on the sexual harassment allegations and on a second SRT scandal at the University of Southern California that similarly involved a cushy job for junior and a large sum from senior. That case was forwarded by USC to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles for possible criminal prosecution.

Perhaps the biggest feather in the L.A. schools supe’s cap was added on Tuesday. Beutner not only successfully shepherded the United Teachers Los Angeles agreement through a unanimous LAUSD school board vote but also made good on a promise to teachers that he would support a resolution calling for an immediate pause on new charter school authorizations. The Richard Vladovic-authored measure, which urges state lawmakers to take an eight-to-10 month statewide breather to assess the impacts and efficacy of the state’s 27-year-old charter laws, has no legal force. Nevertheless, hundreds of panicked charter parents rallied outside the meeting under the mistaken impression the board was voting to ban charters. Despite a last-minute attempt by BD 6 member Kelly Gonez to dilute its language, only BD 4’s Nick Melvoin ended up casting a no vote.

LAUSD need only have looked to Oakland Unified to understand the urgency for a charter time-out. On Monday, the OUSD board of directors voted to close East Oakland’s Roots International Academy middle school. That action, which sparked a firestorm of community outrage, was only the first casualty of a draconian district plan to slash $30 million in spending by closing up to 24, predominately low-income neighborhood schools. More school closing announcements are expected soon.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the closings, which are also at the center of this week’s strike vote by the Oakland Education Association, have proved a galvanizing force for East Bay ed progressives. “The Roots vote was just one school, and we were having hundreds of people showing up,” noted organizer Mike Hutchinson of the Oakland Public Education Network (OPEN), which opposes the closures. “This week other schools are finding out they’re under threat. And so at the next meeting, there will probably be 10 schools there. We are in a very strong position for this fight now.”


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