An estimated 50,000 teachers walked off the job on Monday, January 14, as representatives of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) failed to reach an agreement over the weekend.
Supporting the strike were teachers from Topanga Elementary Charter School (TECS) who began the weeklong protest early Monday morning at the corner of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Topanga School Road.
Around 8 a.m., on the rainiest day of the season, with more expected, Topanga Elementary School teachers, parents and kids, some wearing see-through red ponchos—red being the symbol of unity—trooped down School Road to the Boulevard under a colorful array of bouncing umbrellas.
Cars splashed by, honking their horns in support, as protesters in red ponchos flaunted signs and called out, “We love our teachers. We love our kids.” The rain poured down.
It was the first day of a strike by UTLA members that has been threatening for months as negotiations with LAUSD continued, unsuccessfully.
Up the hill in the auditorium, Principal Steve Gediman and Eric Maxey, a District Administrator, both credentialed teachers, were monitoring instruction of about 30 Transitional Kindergarten (TK) to fifth-grade students as teachers’ aides sat with their grade levels following the day’s curriculum.
“Topanga Elementary, like every other school in the LAUSD, will be in session during the possible strike; we will have our regular schedule,” Gediman wrote in an e-mail on Friday, January 11. “We don’t know if we will get substitute teachers, but the school district is sending our school additional personnel. I’m the administrator assigned to Topanga Elementary, but I’m also a teacher. While I am supportive of my teaching staff, I cannot comment on ongoing negotiations.”
That morning, Gediman said, “I’m making sure the school is safe and we’re carrying on instruction as best as we can.”
By 8:30 a.m., the protestors had dwindled to join other teachers, nurses, parents, and supporters to protest at Grand Park, then marched to District headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles.
At issue is the deep divide between the UTLA and the LAUSD regarding their bargaining positions. The UTLA says it has expressed its issues to the LAUSD for more than two years, with class size being highest on the list; in some cases, classes exceed 45 students per class.
According to its website, the UTLA is demanding the LAUSD “use the $1.9 billion in unrestricted reserves for smaller class sizes; for more nurses, counselors, and librarians; to fully fund its schools; and commit to more support for special education, early education, bilingual, and adult education.” UTLA also calls for “an end to toxic over-testing of students; empowering parent and educator voices at the school site with stronger Local School Leadership Councils; and addressing the Charter School industry drain that siphons more than $600 million from L.A. schools every year.”
With more than 600,000 students covering a 710-square-mile territory, the LAUSD is the second largest school district in the United States. This is the first district-wide strike since 1989, when teachers also walked out over class size, among other issues.
Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA president, said in a televised news conference on Sunday, January 13, that the union was engaged in a “battle for the soul of education. There has never been a more urgent moment to use our power to push back than there is right now,” he said. “It is time to reclaim the promise of public education for all of Los Angeles.”
During the news conference, Arlene Inouye, bargaining chair for the union, called LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner “not an honest partner,” regarding negotiations with the UTLA.
Caputo-Pearl called Beutner a “non-educator, investment banker who is starving our schools and accelerating privatization. Now is the moment to push back on that,” he said.
“Los Angeles Unified did not want a strike and offered UTLA leaders a $565 million package to significantly reduce class sizes, add nearly 1,200 educators in schools, and provide all UTLA members with six percent salary raises,” wrote the LAUSD in a statement on Sunday.
“Los Angeles Unified remains committed to contract negotiations and will continue to work around the clock to find solutions to end the strike which will hurt students, families, and communities most in need throughout Los Angeles,” the statement said.
According to its website calendar, the UTLA plans to strike and hold rallies throughout the district all week if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.
Topanga Elementary TK teacher Amy Weisberg couldn’t say when she thought the strike would end. “I hope not longer than a week,” she said. “But who knows?”
“This is not a moment,” Caputo-Pearl said. “We are building a movement; now is the moment of action.”
LA COUNTY SUPERVISORS APPROVE MILLIONS FOR SCHOOLS
At the January 15 Board meeting, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved to identify funding of up to $10 million directed to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for student healthcare. The motion was co-authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a former high school teacher, and Supervisor Hilda Solis.
“LA County has sufficient resources and this is part of fulfilling our mandate to provide medical services to the most vulnerable,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement. (http://ridley-thomas.lacounty.gov)
The motion seeks to build on the infrastructure and resources that LA County already provides LAUSD, which includes dozens of school-based health centers, as well as mental health clinicians, crisis intervention training for teachers, and counseling for families. LA County is also currently working to build dozens of wellbeing centers in high schools to support teenage students’ social and emotional wellness and sexual health.
GOVERNOR BUDGETS $2.3 BILLION FOR TEACHERS’ PENSIONS
According to CALmatters, newly inaugurated Governor Gavin Newsome, as part of a record $80.7 billion budget for K-14 education, proposed $2.3 billion to help pay down school districts’ long-term unfunded pension liability into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS). Another $700 million would lower districts’ contribution rates over the next two fiscal years.
CALmatters (calmatters.org) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.
Flavia Potenza contributed to this article.