As teachers continued picketing at Los Angeles-area schools, contract negotiators for the teachers’ union and the Los Angeles Unified School District returned to the bargaining table Thursday to discuss the potential for a resolution of the four-day-old strike.
But despite United Teachers Los Angeles and the LAUSD resuming contract talks, there was no immediate indication that a deal was imminent. Union president Alex Caputo-Pearl suggested the talks were likely to stretch at least into the weekend.
“After 21 months of negotiations, I think it would be an unrealistic expectation to say that this will be over after today, because there are hard issues to work through, and they haven’t been moving on class size,” Caputo Pearl said during a Thursday morning rally and news conference at Arleta High School. “And class size is important. They haven’t been moving on some other key things.”
Caputo-Pearl said the striking teachers are already planning another large rally at Grand Park next to City Hall on Friday. Thousands of UTLA members rallied at the park on Monday, the first day of the strike, before marching through downtown to LAUSD headquarters.
“That rally tomorrow has to be absolutely massive to send our bargaining team into the weekend with a huge piece of wind in their sails and momentum with them,” Caputo-Pearl said.
UTLA and LAUSD negotiators met behind closed doors beginning at noon at City Hall. Mayor Eric Garcetti helped lure the warring sides to the table, with an assist from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
“I am certain that together we will get (through) this and we will get our kids back to school,” Thurmond said earlier.
The last negotiating session was held Friday, when the union rejected the district’s latest contract offer. The teachers went on strike on Monday, calling for increased pay, smaller class sizes and the hiring of more support staff, such as nurses, counselors and librarians.
The last time teachers went on strike in Los Angeles was 1989, and the walkout lasted nine days.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said Tuesday the district has offered the union as much as it can given its financial constraints. He said the union’s demands would cost billions of dollars and bankrupt a district already teetering on insolvency.
“It’s just math,” he told reporters. “This is just math. It’s not a values conversation. The experts have all said we do not have the ability to spend more than we’re spending.”
Beutner’s position took a slight hit from within the LAUSD on Wednesday, when two Board of Education members issued statements expressing frustration with the continuing work stoppage. One of them criticized Beutner for failing to broker a resolution and accused him of spreading misinformation.
“I can no longer allow Mr. Beutner to speak for me or to suggest that the massive public relations, and often misinformation, campaign that he is waging represents my views about the current teachers strike,” board member Scott Schmerelson said. “We need to end the strike and get back to our teachers teaching and our kids learning.
“… Instead of repeating the doom, gloom and heading for bankruptcy predictions that we have heard for decades, I believe that it is Mr. Beutner’s job to honestly identify sources of funding buried in our existing budget, and the revenue growth predicted for next year, that could be creatively sourced and invested in the students …,” he said.
Fellow board member George McKenna noted that he and Schmerelson last year proposed that the district ask voters to approve a parcel tax to generate local revenue for schools, but the board rejected the idea.
“We all agree that the state must allocate more money for public education,” McKenna said. “That should have been a legislative priority with a full-court press a year ago, not last week. If we expect teachers to do everything in their power to avoid a strike, then we have an obligation to do everything in our power to do the same.”
The district’s most recent offer to the union, made Friday, included the hiring of 1,200 teachers, capping middle and high school English/math classes at 39 students, capping grades four through six at 35 students, maintaining all other existing class sizes, adding a full-time nurse at every elementary school and another academic counselor at high schools.
The increased staffing, however, would only be for one year, with the district saying the money to pay for the extra employees would come out of a one-time reserve.
“This represents the best we can do, recognizing that it is our obligation to provide as much resources as possible to support out students in each and every one of our schools,” Beutner said Friday.
UTLA rejected the offer, saying it did not go far enough to bolster school staffing, reduce class sizes and prevent them from increasing in the future. The union also blasted the district’s staff-increase proposal for being only a one-year offer, and contended the district’s salary increase proposal is contingent on benefit cuts to future union members.
The LAUSD has offered teachers a 6 percent raise spread over the first two years of a three-year contract while UTLA wants a 6.5 percent raise that would take effect all at once and a year sooner.
The district claims the union’s contract demands would bankrupt the LAUSD, but the union disputes that contention, pointing to what it calls an estimated $1.8 billion reserve fund and insisting the district has not faced a financial deficit in five years. The district contends that reserve fund is already being spent, in part on the salary increase for teachers.
The second-largest school district in the nation, the LAUSD covers 710 square miles and serves more than 694,000 students at 1,322 schools, although 216 schools are independent charter schools, most of which are staffed with non-union teachers unaffected by the strike. The district says about 500,000 students are impacted by the walkout.
The district hired 400 substitutes, and 2,000 administrators with teaching credentials have been reassigned during the strike. The district has set up an information hotline for parents at (213) 443-1300.
According to the LAUSD, at least 132,411 strike-affected students went to class Wednesday. That figure was a 22 percent drop from Tuesday’s revised attendance figure of 171,480. On Monday, the first day of the strike, 156,774 students went to class.
District officials said the absentee rate translated to a gross revenue loss of about $69 million in state funding, which is based on daily attendance. The loss is partially offset — by roughly $10 million a day — due to salaries that aren’t being paid to the striking teachers. Beutner estimated earlier this week that the district suffered a net loss of roughly $15 million on Monday alone.
The district sent a letter to parents this week, noting that state law “does not excuse absences in case of a strike and students are expected to attend class,” but saying school principals “will work with students and families on attendance.”
“At the moment, schools will not be notifying parents of absences, but will continue to monitor student attendance and provide support to students on an individual basis,” according to the district. “Student absences during the strike will not impact graduation.”
UTLA has accused the district of failing to issue a “clear, definitive statement” on how the district is handling absences, effectively “exploiting parents’ fears and knowingly spreading confusion to try to gain leverage.”
Underlying the strike is the issue of charter schools. Union officials have accused Beutner and some members of the school board of favoring a vast expansion of privately operated charter schools, which are governed by the state and generally staffed by non-union teachers.
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