The Los Angeles Unified School District and the local teachers' union hurled new threats Monday, pushing the nation's second-largest school system a step closer to its first strike in 19 years.
District Supt. Leonard Britton on Monday ordered teachers to turn in final grade information early--no later than next Monday, two weeks before a threatened teachers' strike--or else risk having the district withhold their May paychecks.
The head of United Teachers-Los Angeles reacted swiftly to the district's ultimatum, warning that the union will strike Monday instead of May 30.
Starting today, the union will urge members to cease all duties aside from teaching. Such duties include turning in grade information and giving standardized tests. Teachers are already boycotting most after-school responsibilities and yard duties.
The union's 48-member board of directors unanimously approved the steps Monday night.
Union President Wayne Johnson said the union has no choice but to hasten the strike because teachers remain opposed to the district's contract offers. He also acknowledged that a year-end strike would be "meaningless" if teachers lacked the leverage of withholding final grades.
"When teachers go on strike, the only thing they can do is withhold their services," Johnson said. "Our services (include) records and roll-keeping and teaching. If you provide those things, you can't go on strike."
About half of the district's 26,000 classroom teachers refused to report mid-term grades to district offices in April, and the union has urged teachers not to provide final semester marks, which are normally due by the end of the academic year. The last day of classes for most students is June 23.
District and union officials say that they know of no districts where teachers have gone on strike at the end of the school year and are not certain about what the full effect of such a strike would be. However, officials on both sides say the absence of final report cards could prevent students from graduating or being promoted to the next grade.
"I consider this conduct by the UTLA leadership as nothing short of extortion," Britton said at a news conference at district headquarters downtown. "I deplore it in the strongest terms and must do everything within my legal powers to stop it."
He said he is ordering all teachers to turn in grades no later than 4 p.m. next Monday.
"Teachers who do not comply with this directive by the May 15 due date . . . will not be processed for their May check until such time as they comply," he said.
Britton said the district legally can ask for the grade information early, and Johnson did not dispute this. Teachers usually have until the end of the school year to turn in grades.
Britton said that in the event of a strike, substitute teachers and administrators assigned to fill in for striking teachers would combine whatever information was submitted on students' progress with records from the last weeks of the term to determine a student's final grade.
The superintendent said he made the decision to move up the grade deadline without consulting the Board of Education, which has been sharply divided over issues of teacher pay and power in the negotiations for a new teacher contract.
Some board members were openly critical of Britton's action.
"I'm concerned because I wanted to have every opportunity available to avert a strike," said West San Fernando Valley board member Julie Korenstein. "I don't want my time cut short. . . . This could force the issues (too) quickly."
Board member Alan Gershman, however, said he agreed with Britton's decision.
"I support the superintendent's efforts to assure that students get the grades they've earned and the graduations they're entitled to," he said.
The district and the union, which represents counselors, nurses and librarians as well as teachers, have been deadlocked for months over pay and other key issues. The district has offered teachers a 21.5% raise over three years, while the union has demanded 21% over two years.
The district recently improved its wage offer slightly--from 20% to 21.5% over three years--when it learned that a state tax windfall could bring an additional $33 million to the district this year. District officials say this is their best offer, but union leaders contend that surpluses in various district accounts could be used to pay for higher raises.
Also at issue are the elimination of yard duty for elementary instructors, giving elementary teachers a preparation period and the composition of new decision-making school councils. Both sides agree that the councils could help improve school quality, but the union opposes giving administrators and parents equal power with teachers on the councils.