Unhampered by Rain, L.A. Teachers Begin First Strike in 30 Years

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Thousands of teachers staffed picket lines in the rain today, beginning the first teachers strike targeting the Los Angeles Unified School District in 30 years, but schools remained open and district officials called for a resumption of contract negotiations.

``We are here for the kids, to try to get the district to understand that our classes are too large,'' one teacher told reporters while on the picket lines, holding an umbrella to ward off rain. 

``We need more help in the classrooms, we need more help in the offices. We need nurses paid for at every school, and we had no choice. We don't want to be out here; I'd rather be in my classroom. But that's where it's gotten, and we'll be out here as long as we need to be.''

At a morning news conference, United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl addressed fellow union members, parents and students at John Marshall High School, 3939 Tracy St., where picketing had begun about the same time.

``Here we are on a rainy day in the richest country in the world, in the richest state in the country, in a state that's blue as it can be -- and in a city rife with millionaires -- where teachers have to go on strike to get the basics for our students,'' Caputo-Pearl said.

``Here we are in a fight for the soul of public education,'' Caputo-Pearl said. 

``The question is: do we starve our public neighborhood schools so that they (become) privatized, or do we re-invest in our public neighborhood schools for our students and for a thriving city?''

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner estimated Monday morning that about 3,500 people were taking part in pickets at the schools, and he urged UTLA officials to return to the bargaining table.

``We remain committed to resolve the contract negotiations as soon as possible,'' Beutner said. 

``We made our last proposal to UTLA on Friday, which was rejected. ... We urge them to resume bargaining with us anytime, anywhere, 24-7. We'd like to resolve this.''

Beutner said the district was in discussions with the governor's office and mayor's office to determine of they can help broker an end to the strike. Beutner said all 1,240 elementary, middle and high schools were open, thanks in part to substitute teachers and credentialed school staffers. Bus service was operating normally, and meals were being served to students as usual.

District officials noted Sunday that while campuses would remain open, early education centers will only be open for special-needs students, and state preschool sites will be closed. The district has set up an information hotline for parents at (213) 443-1300. Around mid-morning Monday, thousands of teachers and their supporters showed up at Los Angeles City Hall for a rally and march to LAUSD headquarters. 

UTLA officials have repeatedly said the labor dispute is not solely over salary, but in a push for smaller class sizes and hiring of more school support staff, such as nurses, counselors and librarians. The union claims the district is refusing to dip into an estimated $1.8 billion budget reserve, while the district claims the reserve is already being spent -- in part on proposed teacher salaries. The district has also accused the union of refusing to budget from its original contract demands in almost two years, a claim the union denies.At a news conference Sunday, UTLA bargaining co-chair Arlene Inouye placed the blame for the impasse squarely on Beutner, saying he failed to show up at Friday's bargaining session and released the district's latest contract offer to the media before presenting it to the union.UTLA and district negotiators met behind closed doors for about four hours Friday afternoon, but made no progress in contract talks.

The district's latest offer on Friday included the hiring of roughly 1,200 teachers for the coming school year, up from the previous offer that would have added 1,000 teachers. Beutner said the district's proposal would cap middle and high school English/math classes at 39 students, cap grades four through six at 35 students and maintain all other existing class sizes. He also said the funds would provide library services at every middle school, nursing services at all elementary schools five days a week and add an academic counselor at every comprehensive high school.Beutner said the hirings would cost about $130 million, with some of the money coming from Gov. Gavin Newsom's recently released state budget proposal, and about $10 million coming from the county. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the proposed $10 million in funding on Tuesday.

``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. 

Inouye said the union was ``insulted'' by the district's ``woefully inadequate'' offer, saying the new hires in the proposal would only be budgeted for one year. Reducing class sizes has been one of UTLA's demands, although disagreements about a pay raise, the staffing level of nurses, counselors and librarians, and other issues have also been areas of conflict in more than two years of contract negotiations. Underlying the talks is the issue of privately operated charter schools -- which are governed by state law. The union has decried charters for bleeding away students and money from the district, and has accused Beutner of working to vastly expand the number of charter schools. 

Union officials have said that adding 1,000 teachers, or even 1,200 teachers, would have a minimal impact in a district with more than 1,000 campuses. 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 union claims the district's proposed salary hike would be contingent on benefit cuts for future union members.UTLA also says it wants ``fully staffed'' schools with more nurses, librarians and counselors added to the payrolls, along with pledges to reduce class sizes. Beutner contends the union's demands would push the district into insolvency and cost around $3 billion. 

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Office of Education appointed a team of fiscal experts to work with the district to develop a fiscal stabilization plan. The office has the power to take over financial decisions from the LAUSD school board, and threatened late last year that it may do so if the district's finances don't improve. 

Beutner said the county's move means it believes LAUSD is on the ``precipice'' of financial insolvency. But UTLA Caputo-Pearl accused Beutner of orchestrating the county's involvement as a political ploy, insisting that the district has not faced a fiscal deficit in five years, and is not facing one now. 

As the second largest school District in the nation, the LAUSD covers an area totaling 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 who would not be affected by the strike. The District says about 500,000 students and 1,100 schools will be impacted by the walkout. 

About 80 percent of the district's students come from low-income households and qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, and around 25 percent are learning English. Beutner said Monday that educational activities were continuing in schools, although it was unclear to what extent classes were being held. The district hired 400 substitutes, and 2,000 administrators with teaching credentials have been reassigned.UTLA represents more than 31,000 teachers. 

The city of Los Angeles has established a website at www.lamayor.org/StudentsAndFamilies, describing city resources available to students and parents during a strike. 

Mayor Eric Garcetti said that while he is encouraging both sides to continue talking to avoid a strike, the city will bolster staffing and resources at city recreation centers, libraries and Family Source Centers if a walkout occurs in order ``to support families with additional options.''

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