LAUSD, Teachers to Hold 11th Hour Bargaining Session

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The 600,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District and the union representing the district's 30,000 teachers planned to hold 11th-hour talks today in hopes of staving off the district's first teachers strike in 30 years, possibly starting Thursday.

Consistent with the secrecy that the two sides have frequently exhibited, there has been no announcement as of early this morning as to when and where the talks would take place.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has tried a number of legal steps to delay the walkout by at least a few days, but its efforts to date have been unavailing. At issue is whether United Teachers Los Angeles gave the LAUSD a legally required 10-day notice that its members would stop working under the existing contract, but no hearing took place after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Samantha Jessner yesterday denied a motion by United Teachers Los Angeles for an exemption to the electronic filing rules that would have allowed a hearing to occur. The court has not announced whether a ruling will be made today.

The district is seeking an injunction based on alleged “insufficient notice of intent to strike” -- an assertion union officials are calling “unsubstantiated” and “disingenuous.”

The union's goal is to preempt the district from going to court on the same issue after a strike begins since, if that occurred, a judge could shut down the strike for several days, dampening its momentum.

A bargaining session held Monday failed to break the logjam in the protracted negotiations. The LAUSD said it brought forward a new proposal Monday that would have added nearly 1,000 additional teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians, which the UTLA rejected.

The LAUSD Board of Education passed a motion Tuesday that eases background check requirements for some parent volunteers in anticipation of the need for help in the event of a strike. Those volunteers will not need to pass a full federal background check but will still be checked against a national database of sex offenders.

The less-restrictive policy would kick in only when the superintendent declared an emergency. A volunteer would then simply fill out a form and the district would check a database to make sure the person was not a registered sex offender.

The district has 12,000 volunteers who have cleared background checks, said district spokeswoman Shannon Haber.

The board Tuesday also passed a resolution that directs Superintendent Austin Beutner to create a three-year “enterprise plan” aimed at bringing in more money. The resolution states that the district faces a structural budget deficit that requires the district to cut costs and generate additional revenue, and sets a March 18 deadline for creating a plan that could include parcel tax and school bond measures, as well as strategies for increasing enrollment.

“We recognize that Los Angeles Unified needs more resources, and this resolution confirms our commitment to work with families, labor partners, and the communities we serve to achieve this,” Beutner said.

No one issue separates the two sides. They have been negotiating for nearly two years without coming close to a resolution. They've already gone through mediation and a fact-finding session in recent months. The fact finder's report was issued last month, and it sparked more verbal sparring between the two sides.

The LAUSD said it brought forward a new proposal Monday that would have added nearly 1,000 additional teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians, which the UTLA rejected. UTLA President Alex-Caputo Pearl told reporters he had several problems with the proposal and was surprised the district had “so little to offer. Unless something changes significantly there will be a strike in the city of L.A.”

Caputo-Pearl said the district's latest proposal was inadequate for several reasons, including that a potential raise for teachers would be contingent on cutting future health care benefits, that it actually increases class size instead of lowering it, and would not add enough long-term nurses, counselors, and librarians.

With around 900 schools in the district, Caputo-Pearl said the offer would only amount to about one additional employee per school. He added that it was not clear if the 1,000 positions agreed to by the district would be new hires, or the result of the district shuffling around employees.

For its part, the district has insisted that its contract offer to the union incorporates many of the recommendations set forth in a previous fact- finding report, such as a 6 percent pay raise, a $30 million investment in hiring of professional staff and reducing class sizes and elimination of a section of the labor agreement that the union claims would allow the district to unilaterally increase class size.

UTLA officials have said many elements of the district's offer remained “unclear,” suggesting that the 6 percent salary increase being offered still appears to be contingent on cuts to future union members' health care and contending the offer also appears to maintain the contract section allowing increases in class size.

The union is also continuing to push for increased district investment in hiring of counselors, nurses, librarians and other professional staff, saying the $30 million proposed by the district would have a negligible impact on only a small percentage of LAUSD campuses.

The union has been pushing the district to tap into an estimated $1.8 billion reserve fund to hire more staff and reduce class sizes. LAUSD says the staffing increases being demanded by the union would cost an estimated $786 million a year, further depleting a district already facing a $500 million deficit.

Beutner told reporters the district simply did not have enough money to address all of UTLA's demands on reducing class sizes.

“There's no more than that, so the notion that we are hoarding reserves, the notion that more money exists somewhere else to give more to reduce class sizes at this time, is not accurate,” Beutner said. “We are spending more than we have in service of our students.”

Despite the absence of a consensus between the district and its teachers, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has no formal role in education issues, was relatively upbeat about Monday's talks. He was involved in separate phone conferences with both sides, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Yesterday was really a very positive sign that they're at the table,” he said Tuesday. “An agreement won't get finalized in the street or in a press release but in face-to-face conversations.”

He added: “There's not a lot that separates them. People want lower class sizes. People want fair pay. People also want to make sure that there's support in our schools.”

But could this be a long strike?

“It could be,” the mayor said. “It really depends on the leadership, both sides, the union and of the administration. Without betraying any of the confidential negotiations, I think real progress was made yesterday (Monday). Still many steps to go but after a long time with them never really talking to each other for months, I think that conversation has finally started.”

Photo: Getty Images

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