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Future of schools breakfast program has become a 'power struggle'

Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy wants the school board to decide whether to keep Breakfast in the Classroom.
Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy wants the school board to decide whether to keep Breakfast in the Classroom.
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In the latest power struggle in the nation's second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy is putting the future of a breakfast program for students up for a school board vote.

Breakfast in the Classroom uses the first 15 minutes of the school day to feed students a healthy meal to power their learning. The program -- which launched a year ago and it's in a third of district schools -- doesn't cost the district a dime. It's funded by state and federal grants. And yet, it's getting caught up in a political fight. 

"I think there's been sort of a power struggle here whether this program is working,” said L.A. Unified Board of Education member Nury Martinez. 

To understand that battle, it helps to know how the program was created. Breakfast in the Classroom was the first project of the L.A. Fund for Public Education, a fundraising group created by Deasy and well-connected philanthropist Megan Chernin.

A recent union poll showed teachers liked the fact that students were being fed a healthy breakfast, but they were less happy that the program cut into as much as 30 minutes of precious instruction time. And they complained that the food attracted pests to classrooms.

Now Deasy is tossing the political hot-potato to the board. He's cut the program out of his proposed budget and is leaving it up to them to decide whether to keep it.

"I think as the superintendent, in hearing teachers, and knowing what the issues are, he should just make a decision and make a recommendation on why the program is not working out,” said Ingrid Villeda, a fifth grade teacher and area representative for the teachers union. "But instead, he's putting the pressure on the school board."

In response to requests for comment, the district released a five paragraph statement from Deasy which had nothing but praise for Breakfast in the Classroom, noting that the program stands to add about $6 million to L.A. Unified's general fund and keep cafeteria workers employed.

"About a thousand workers will lose their jobs,” if the program is cut, said Courtni Pugh,  Executive Director of SEIU Local 99, the union that represents non-teaching staff. Among her members are the cafeteria workers who prepare the Breakfast in the Classroom meals.

She said she'll mobilize parents and workers to show support for the program.

Martinez, whose politics are in line with Deasy's and is nearing the end of her term, said she wants to continue the program.

"At the end of the day you have to do what's best for children,” she said.

But the board is politically split in half. Other board members could not be reached for comment.

The vote is scheduled to take place on May 14th. Martinez said the debate will be heated.

"This program was implemented a year ago and I thought we were all on board," she said. "It's being called for a vote just so the superintendent can have an actual vote be called so that we know where everybody stands, I suppose.

"If that's what he has to do," she added, "that's what he has to do."