The possibility of sickouts or a strike by teachers loomed large Monday in the Los Angeles Unified School District as management and the teachers’ union raised the stakes in the contract fight that has set off widespread student demonstrations.
The first move came in mid-afternoon, when school Supt. Leonard Britton emerged from a long and apparently difficult closed-door meeting of board members to announce that he would order paychecks withheld from any teacher who fails to file students’ midyear grades with the district this Friday.
Britton told reporters at a crowded press conference at school district headquarters that he is “drawing the line” on the grades issue because it has contributed to the turmoil on the campuses and he has a legal obligation to ensure “this district operates in an orderly manner.”
But the action appeared to inflame, rather than defuse, the conflict with the teachers.
United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson told reporters minutes later that because of Britton’s threat, a strike vote could be taken as early as next week. He also said there could be other job actions by teachers in the next several days, including wildcat sickouts. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you start to see a very high absenteeism rate,” Johnson said. “Students very definitely will be the losers.”
Johnson, who blamed district officials for escalating the already-volatile situation, also said the teachers would seek a court order to block Britton’s no-grades, no-pay tactic. The union president charged that Britton’s action was “in effect, a lockout.”
For now, Johnson said, the union officially will only urge teachers to stick to the original tactic of withholding grades from the district. However, he said, the union will also support teachers at individual campuses who decide to take actions they deem appropriate, including moving official grading books to their homes to ensure that teachers have control of them.
Monday’s saber-rattling occurred against a backdrop of additional student walkouts and sit-ins on several more junior and senior high school campuses. There were reports of rock-throwing at two schools. The largest protest was at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles where about 1,000 students milled about in front of the school much of the morning. “No grades. No School. Settle the matter,” read one large banner.
Teachers, as a pressure tactic on the school board, have said they will not file semester grades due this Friday with the district. Instead, they plan to make the grades available directly to students under a plan devised by the union. Despite assurances from teachers and many college admissions officials that most college-bound students will not be harmed by the action, students fear that delays in preparation of official transcripts will put them at a disadvantage in the competition for college placement.
As in the dozens of protests that have swept the district since Jan. 18, Garfield students said they supported teachers’ demands for higher pay and want their official grades. “We need what we deserve,” said Olga Santiago, a junior who helped organize the protest.
“We’re trying to get some results” for teachers, said another student, Manuel Gonzalez. “Look at all the (money) performers get. Millions. But who is more important?”
A tense moment at Garfield came when a television news crew arrived and students surged toward the camera and into the street. Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies cordoned off several blocks of 6th Street and ordered the students to disperse, which drew taunts from the crowd. The standoff eased when Principal Maria Tostado, her staff and parents managed to move the students back onto the school grounds.
Britton’s get-tough policy was something of a surprise because he and school board President Roberta Weintraub had met privately and informally with Johnson and other union leaders Sunday to try to narrow their differences on salary increases and other issues.
In fact, Johnson said the district, which has been offering a 6% first-year increase and 17.4% over three years, has now made a “slightly” higher, unofficial wage offer. But it was far short of the 12% one-year increase the teachers are seeking, Johnson said. Britton would not comment on the offer.
Britton said he felt compelled to take stronger action because the teachers’ “unconscionable” threat to withhold grades from the district could harm students. He said he chose to act after reviewing the potential effect of the grade withholding with high school principals. Delays in preparation of official transcripts could affect a wide variety of student activities, he insisted, ranging from applying for good-student auto insurance discounts to applying for scholarships and student aid. Withholding grades from the district is “completely unacceptable” and requires him to exercise his powers to the “maximum permitted by law,” Britton said.
Teachers will be paid Friday, Britton said, but the next monthly paychecks, due early in March, will be withheld if grades are not filed.
The school board remains divided on what strategy to adopt in the dispute. Britton’s press conference was delayed more than two hours as board members debated in closed session. Because of the student protests, some members favor round-the-clock, face-to-face bargaining between union leaders and the board. But others say the negotiations are best left to the lawyers and labor relations experts.
In response to questioning from reporters, Britton said a majority of board members backed his action, but he refused to elaborate.
Board member Julie Korenstein, one of the teachers’ strongest allies, said Britton acted without seeking or receiving board approval, and she questioned the wisdom of his tactic. “I think it will impede the negotiation process and is a serious turn for the worse,” she said.
Board member Jackie Goldberg took a more neutral view. She said she was surprised by Britton’s announcement, but did not directly criticize it, saying that it was difficult to argue Britton’s interpretation of the state code.
“This board is divided on every issue,” Goldberg added, “so I assume the board is divided on this.”
At Monday night’s raucous school board meeting, a large crowd of teachers and some parents were sharply divided over the contract dispute and student walkouts.
The Rev. Horacio Quinones, a leader of the Hispanic Parents’ Coalition, presented board members with a petition that he said contained 1,000 signatures urging the board to bring order to the situation. “Put a stop to the turmoil,” Quinones said. “We are tired of the union using our children as pawns.”
Quinones also urged police and sheriff’s deputies to stay back from student demonstrators because their presence could provoke hostility. Board member Leticia Quezada agreed and praised the Sheriff’s Department’s cautious handling of the Garfield situation Monday. “I fear any one of these situations could get out of control,” Quezada said.
Birmingham High School senior Todd Cobin, the board’s student representative, urged the union to “stop holding the students hostage.” He also called on district officials to allow students and members of the public to observe the contract negotiations.
In response, Gene Touchet, an English teacher at Franklin High, told Cobin: “We are not the hostage-takers, son. Look to your left (at board members) for that.” Touchet’s comments were met with wild applause from teachers, many of whom wore red union T-shirts and buttons that said: “Make My Day. Dock My Pay.”