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What happened when Supt. Austin Beutner met with the teachers union leader? It depends on who you ask

What happened when Supt. Austin Beutner met with the teachers union leader? It depends on who you ask
L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner met with the leader of the teachers union Wednesday in hopes of making progress toward a contract and avoiding a strike. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner met Wednesday with the head of the teachers union and then sent him a new contract offer in a follow-up letter. The leader of United Teachers Los Angeles quickly responded that a settlement is not close. The union has scheduled a strike authorization vote later this month.

District leadership and the teachers union, whose members are working without a contract, appear to remain far apart. They can’t even agree on what happened when the two leaders got together at a Denny’s restaurant for the morning meeting.

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Beutner presented one version of events in his letter to UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl.

“We found common ground today on a number of issues and we need to build on that,” Beutner wrote. “Our students, their families and the communities we serve are waiting for us to resolve this.”

Beutner noted that other district unions have settled for raises totaling about 6% over three years. He said the same deal is available for teachers.

“With raises totaling about 6%, these agreements demonstrate the district’s commitment to our school leaders, teacher’s assistants, bus drivers, custodians, food service employees and librarians who, alongside teachers, work tirelessly every day to make each of our schools places of great teaching and learning,” he wrote to Caputo-Pearl. “L.A. Unified aims to reach a similar agreement with UTLA in this bargaining process.”

Beutner suggested in his letter that the meeting had been cordial, which would mark a contrast with union statements sharply critical of Beutner.

“I am available to meet with you at any time in advance of the mediation date if you feel we can chart a quicker path to an agreement,” he wrote.

But Caputo-Pearl said Beutner mischaracterized the state of negotiations. The superintendent, he said, has resisted the union’s efforts to begin working immediately with an outside mediator. These sessions could have begun in early August and the district has delayed a possible first meeting until late September, the union leader said.

“One of the reasons this is so distressing to us is that the main point we were trying to make to him in that meeting is that the district needed to follow the law in scheduling a mediation session,” Caputo-Pearl said. “His letter makes clear, by making a mediation a mere footnote, that they’re not going to follow the law, that he is trying to dodge the mediation question and to interfere with our strike vote.”

“His being deceitful like this — he just proved why we need mediation,” Caputo-Pearl said. “UTLA members are sick and tired of the district’s disrespect.”

As for whether the two sides were coming together, Caputo-Pearl said, “There is not the outline of a deal. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The union also made these points, among others, in a follow-up letter sent to Beutner on Thursday.

The district’s official offer to the union before Beutner’s letter has been for raises of less than 6%, with district negotiators saying they wanted more compromise from the union before going further. But it is no surprise, given the deals with other unions, that the school system would go to 6%.

The teachers union wants a 6.5% raise retroactive to July 1, 2016, and possible additional raises over the following three years. UTLA also is calling for reduced class sizes, “ending overtesting” of students and “placing reasonable accountability measures” on independently operated charter schools, which mostly aren’t unionized.

Charters compete with the district for students and the funding that goes with them to the schools where they enroll.

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District officials contend that the union’s proposal would increase an annual district spending deficit from about $500 million to about $1.3 billion, rapidly consuming reserves.

With the two sides at an impasse, bringing in a mediator to assist is the next step under California labor law.

If members of the teachers union vote to authorize a strike, union leaders could call a strike without going back to them for approval.

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with a letter from the union to the superintendent.

9:15 a.m. Aug. 16: This article was updated with additional details about the meeting between Beutner and Caputo-Pearl.

9:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Caputo-Pearl.

This article was originally published at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 15.

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