Thousands of teachers leave classrooms for budget protest
Thousands of Los Angeles teachers protested proposed state budget cuts Friday in a morning job action that delayed the beginning of class for most students but caught the attention of state and local politicians and parents. The hourlong demonstrations were peaceful as students were supervised in gyms, athletic fields and auditoriums.
The district twice tried to stop the demonstration during the week because they were concerned about students’ safety. No injuries were reported and attendance throughout the district was typical for a Friday in June -- about 94%, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said.
The demonstration was intended to draw attention to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest budget, which provides a $193-million increase over last year’s education funding but does not include a cost-of-living increase and cuts support to some programs. As a result, L.A. Unified estimates that it will face a $353-million shortfall. The district’s Board of Education is preparing to vote on the district budget Tuesday.
The protests, which drew widespread media attention, appeared to achieve its goal, union and other officials said.
State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said the demonstrators -- who included teachers in red T-shirts, parents with young children and students -- were heard by the governor and state lawmakers wrestling with a $17-billion budget shortfall. She said Democrats in the Assembly and Senate will not accept any budget that is balanced through cuts only.
“I absolutely support the action taken by the teachers, and if it wasn’t for the swearing-in activities, I would have walked on the picket line right along with them,” said Bass at her ceremonial inauguration as Assembly speaker at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. “What the teachers did today was they sounded the alarm for the people of Los Angeles to understand how serious this crisis is.”
Even Schwarzenegger, who asked teachers to report to their classrooms on time, said he understood their frustration.
If he were a teacher he too would be upset at the state “that we have a broken budget system that is taking schools on a roller-coaster ride continuously,” he said in a conference call with reporters Friday.
Teachers union President A.J. Duffy called the coordinated demonstrations “a great day for the teachers of L.A.” but said the protest would have been more powerful if Supt. David Brewer had walked the line as well.
“If he was standing next to me . . . then no Legislature, no governor would try to take the kind of cuts out of education that they’re talking about,” said Duffy, who was joined by about 150 protesters at Los Angeles High School in mid-city.
Brewer, who had unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order against the job action, said the protests were “just not a smart move.” Duffy, the superintendent said, “can’t ask me to condone something that is illegal.”
Not all teachers or schools joined in the walkout. Locke High, for example, did not participate for fear that it would be too disruptive. District officials said that about 75% of the union’s 48,000 members took part, but the union said that estimate was slightly low.
Doug Ahler, 24, was among the L.A. High teachers who joined Duffy.
“I am particularly interested in this because I’m a first-year teacher,” said Ahler, who teaches social studies. “I’m just doing whatever I can to fight to keep my job.”
District officials have said that they hope to avoid cuts in the classroom but that about 6,500 probationary teachers like Ahler could be laid off, a move the union has vowed to fight.
At Belvedere Elementary School in East Los Angeles, about 300 parents, teachers and students banged drums, shook maracas and hoisted bilingual signs reading “Save our schools,” some hand-lettered in crayon and marker.
A handful of teachers and volunteers at the school monitored about 300 to 400 students at a basketball court behind the school while younger students watched a movie indoors. The teachers who watched the students said they did so in solidarity with the protesting teachers to ensure the children were safe. Only children whose parents attended the protest were allowed to participate in it.
Edward Stepanian, a second-grade teacher who helped organize the protest, rallied the morning crowd with a bullhorn.
“We want more books, we want better classrooms, we just want what we need to give the students a good education,” he said.
At University High, teachers and parents complained that the school is already starved for funds. Although the campus is outwardly beautiful, with a graceful, Italianate main building often used in movie shoots, it has not been given the money it needs for proper maintenance and operations, they said.
Dana Mortimer, a parent who is a member of the school’s management committee and a 1981 graduate, said she has been asked to vote on whether to spend money on toilet paper or campus security because there wasn’t money for both.
Cassandra Miramontes, a sophomore who joined the protest, said she didn’t want to lose any of her teachers and that she wasn’t happy to be skipping class.
“That’s not what it’s about,” she said.
Reading teacher Kyle Moody, 28, said he wanted to call the governor’s attention to illiteracy.
“We have ninth- and 10th-graders in our schools that can’t read,” he said, which “only proves that we have to put more resources in our schools, not less.”
Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg, Alice Short, Tami Abdollah, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Francisco Vara-Orta contributed to this report.