Thousands of educators and their students returned to class Wednesday, following a Los Angeles Unified School District teachers’ strike that stretched over six school days but ended thanks to a marathon negotiating session that resulted in a labor agreement.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, who worked with the district and teachers’ union to help broker the labor deal, was among those welcoming some students back to school. He posted photos of himself on social media walking to campus with a group of children, then reading to them in class.
“There’s a new energy in L.A. around the idea that we can all play a role in giving our kids the excellent public education they deserve,” wrote Garcetti, who slightly delayed a flight to Washington, D.C., so he could spend time with kids returning to class. Garcetti is heading to Washington to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting.
The mood was upbeat at campuses across the district, including at Franklin Elementary School in the Los Feliz area, where a group of teachers serenaded students returning to class.
“We’re going to keep on fighting from here, but it’s an excellent start,” teacher Valerie Peralta told KCAL9.
United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said Tuesday night “a vast super-majority” of teachers had voted in favor of the labor agreement, which was announced Tuesday morning following a 21-hour negotiating session at City Hall.
The agreement also requires formal approval by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. Although that vote is considered a formality, the board cannot vote on it until the pact is reviewed by the county Office of Education, which provides fiscal oversight of the district.
“Our obligation is to ensure that the district has a funding plan in place to cover the costs associated with this agreement, and thereby able to remain fiscally solvent,” county Superintendent Debra Duardo said in a statement.
“Now that a tentative agreement is in place, the Los Angeles County Office of Education has the legal obligation to review and provide comments before the LAUSD governing board takes action. While the statute provides a window of 10 working days, we intend to provide these comments as soon as possible once we receive the relevant data.”
UTLA teachers went on strike Jan. 14, calling for smaller class sizes and the hiring of more support staff, such as nurses, counselors and librarians, and a pay raise.
“The strike nobody wanted is now behind us,” LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said Tuesday when the tentative agreement was announced.
But he also cautioned: “We can’t solve 40 years of under-investment in public education in just one week or just one contract. Now that all students and our educators are heading back to the classroom, we have to keep our focus and pay attention to the long-term solutions. … The importance of this moment is public education is now the topic in every household in our community. Let’s capitalize on this. Let’s fix it.”
Although some teachers wondered aloud if the strike had been worth it, Caputo-Pearl said the agreement addressed the union’s core issues.
“We have seen over the last week something pretty amazing happen,” Caputo-Pearl said. “We went on strike in one of the largest strikes the United States has seen in decades. And the creativity and innovation and passion and love and emotion of our members was out on the street, in the communities, in the parks for everyone to see.”
Some teachers on Wednesday morning expressed trepidation at the new contract.
“Elementary teachers aren’t very happy about the contract,” teacher Brenda Hauser told NBC4. “They gave us very few hours to review it. And what we needed the most was the class-size reduction, which we didn’t get much.”
The deal includes a 6 percent pay raise for teachers, with 3 percent retroactive to the 2017-18 school year and another 3 percent retroactive to July 1, 2018. It also includes provisions for providing a full-time nurse at all schools, along with a teacher-librarian. The proposal also calls for the hiring of 17 counselors by October and outlines a phased-in reduction of class sizes over the next three school years, with additional reductions for “high needs” campuses.
Caputo-Pearl said the issue of class size was a key element of the pact. He said the district agreed to eliminate contract language he dubbed an “escape clause” that would allow the district to increases class sizes in the future.
A main thrust of the union’s strike was a call for increases in the number of nurses, counselors and librarians at campuses. According to the district, the proposed agreement’s provisions for reducing class sizes and hiring nurses, librarians and counselors will cost an estimated $175 million from 2019-21, and $228 million for 2021-22.
It was unclear exactly how the costs will be covered. Garcetti said the deal’s various provisions will include a combination of funding or other support from the state, county and city.
The proposal calls on the district to support a statewide cap on charter schools and to provide regular reports on proposed co-locations of charter and public school campuses. The deal also calls on Garcetti to support a ballot initiative going to voters in November 2020 that would roll back Proposition 13 property tax limits on commercial buildings to increase state tax revenue for public education.
Just before the strike began, Beutner said the district’s had offered the union all it could, given its financial constraints, but he said Tuesday the new deal “does even more” that its previous offer.
The union had vocally disputed the district’s claim that it could not afford more extensive investment in school staffing, pointing to what it called an estimated $1.8 billion reserve fund and insisting the district has not faced a financial deficit in five years. The district contended that reserve fund is already being spent, in part on the salary increase for teachers.
Caputo-Pearl, who stood next to Beutner during the news conference, was asked about his past comments in which he harshly criticized the superintendent and accused him of lying about the amount of money the district has available, and being dedicated to privatizing schools. The UTLA president was also asked if he could trust Beutner to follow through on the deal.
“We have, Austin Beutner and I, we certainly have our differences, and we’ve expressed those, and I think we will continue to express those. But what we’ve been able to do over the last chunk of days is work together with a bunch of partners and a bunch of help to forge an agreement that we are both committed to making sure is implemented, to make sure that our students are served and our schools are improved,” Caputo-Pearl said.
But some union members expressed disappointment with the results, including a Marshall High teacher who said in remarks reported in the Los Angeles Times that her room has 36 desks, but some of her classes have up to 40 students.
“I think it’s kind of sad that we had to spend six days getting the numbers that we already had,” she said.
District officials said the UTLA strike, which kept teachers out of classrooms for six school days, cost the LAUSD an estimated $151.4 million in attendance-based state funding. That amount is partially offset by an estimated $10 million per day by the salaries that were not paid to striking teachers. Nearly 111,000 students went to class on Tuesday, up 30 percent from 87,559 on Friday.