The California Public Employment Relations Board has appointed a mediator to head off a strike. But after 16 months of negotiations, the Los Angeles Unified School District has rejected almost all of UTLA’s proposals. The district claims it does not have the money to fund what we’re asking for, even though the district admits it has a $1.2-billion reserve. The union points to the 2018-2019 budget LAUSD submitted to LA County, which listed reserves of nearly $1.8 billion. From the union’s perspective, mediation should have started at the beginning of the month, but the district is stalling. UTLA is preparing to be ready, if necessary, for a possible strike by early October.
Los Angeles Unified Supt. Austin Beutner recently said, “I view myself as the chief kid advocate.” He says always asks, “Where’s the kid in that?” when he makes decisions. If that’s so, a strike should be easy to avoid because UTLA’s demands are focused on helping students by improving our schools.
California ranks 48th out of 50 states in teacher-student ratio, and LAUSD is often the worst offender in the state. At my high school, the administrators do a good job with the situation they’re handed, but we started school this month with over 70 academic classes of 40 or more students. It’s not at all atypical.
Our existing contract contains class-size limits, but there is also a specific clause that allows the district to set aside the limits during a financial crisis. As it was initially negotiated and understood, it was a reasonable clause. However, the district has wielded it against the schools by declaring questionable financial crises, allowing it to lay off teachers and raise class sizes. “Financial crisis” is now invoked on an almost annual basis. No other school district in California has a similar mechanism, and with this contract, the union seeks to eliminate it in Los Angeles.
Many L.A. Unified schools do not have a full-time nurse or librarian — the union is demanding one full-time librarian for every middle school and high school, and one full-time nurse for each school. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-1, and some states maintain a ratio below 225-1. The union’s modest demand is that on high school campuses, the ratio be capped at 500-1.
Students’ limited access to counselors is now made worse by counselors’ obligation to do stints of yard duty. One gain from the teachers union’s successful 1989 strike was the elimination of yard duty for teachers, and we now seek the same for counselors.
Career Technical Education teachers don’t get a planning period, limiting their ability to serve their students. Our demand is that they get one, just as regular teachers do.
Special Education teachers must draft Individualized Education Program reports and hold the accompanying meetings for each student each year, a process which generally takes between 50 and 150 hours a year. Some of these teachers must also do Functional Behavior Assessments, which take 40 hours to complete—a full weeks’ work. This onerous labor is currently done free of charge. UTLA’s demand is that the teachers be paid for this extra time.
Compensation is also a major issue. The LAUSD Advisory Task Force’s recent report “Hard Choices” suggests numerous cuts. (LAUSD claims the Task Force is independent of the district. UTLA disputes this, and believes the report was created to push an agenda of salary and benefit cuts, under the guise of being "independent." It also has a lot of methodological flaws--UTLA's full criticism of the report can be found here.)
In “Hard Choices,” the Task Force alleges that its teachers are overpaid by 17%. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the value of money has dropped 24% since 2007. Teachers have recovered only 10% of that in raises. We’re asking for a 6.5% raise.
Beutner describes the teachers union’s demands as being excessive, particularly in comparison with those of other LAUSD unions.
“We have settled on a fair basis with our other bargaining units for approximately 6%,” he told one interviewer. LAUSD acknowledges that a 2% raise over the life of the three-year contract, retroactive to July 2017, as well as a one-time 2% bonus is their last formal offer. It says it has unofficially suggested it would agree to a 6% increase. But according to UTLA, this unofficial offer, at least as it applies to “other bargaining units,” is actually a 3% ongoing salary increase, with a 3% one-time ‘wage supplement’ that only continues if the district says it has enough money next year. Moreover, it seems unlikely that LAUSD will agree it has enough money for a “wage supplement” next year.
The 2% offered does not even match the rate of inflation. Even getting that much has been a struggle, as LAUSD originally proposed no raise at all. In one of the most expensive cities in the world, the average teacher’s take-home pay is at most $5,000 a month — and LAUSD thinks that’s too much.
“Hard Choices” calls for reducing our retirement benefits, but these benefits are not simply given to us — we pay between 9.2% and 10.25% of our salaries into the State Teachers’ Retirement System to finance them.
Underlying the district’s hard line is a long-standing criticism of teachers. We are blamed for LAUSD’s low test scores. But this is instead caused by other factors, chiefly the sharp drop in the socioeconomic status of students over the past several decades. Today 76% of our students live in poverty, 25% are just learning English, and 90% are minority. Many LAUSD parents never even had the opportunity to go to high school in their own countries (and own languages) much less earning degrees in the US. LAUSD students are bright and capable, and it is a pleasure to teach them, but they start off considerably behind the student populations of most other school districts.
If Beutner the “kid advocate” wants to know where he can find what’s best for children, that’s simple — it’s in United Teachers of Los Angeles’ contract demands.
This is an updated, clarified and expanded version of the column. To read the column as it originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, please click here. The Los Angeles Unified School District reacted angrily to the column—to read their criticism and my response to it, click here. This column appeared in the Los Angeles Times on the morning we began our strike vote.