Judge denies L.A. school district’s bid to block teachers strike

L.A. teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl, shown leading a December rally, praised a Friday court order that cleared the way for a teachers' strike.
L.A. teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl, shown leading a December rally, praised a Friday court order that cleared the way for a teachers’ strike.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

A federal judge has rejected an attempt by Los Angeles school district officials to limit or prevent a teachers’ strike.

The district’s legal maneuver was based on its responsibility under federal law to provide services to students with disabilities. The district is under additional legal restrictions based on a settlement that is under the supervision of a federal judge.

Those combined obligations should have compelled the court to prevent or limit a strike, the district argued in papers filed this week. But U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew disagreed, taking only one day to issue an order denying the district’s suit.


The L.A. Unified School District “is attempting, prematurely, to bring an unrelated party into a long-settled dispute without any explanation as to how [the teachers union] would be legally liable” under the settlement or special education laws, Lew wrote in his decision.

The judge acknowledged that a strike could “burden” L.A. Unified’s efforts to provide services to students, but he said the district’s court filing “is a new and independent claim that would inject facts and legal issues that have nothing to do with claims that were settled … over fifteen years ago.”

Lew held open the possibility that the district could file a claim later but said it would have to be after the start of a strike and was likely to involve a more time-consuming process.

United Teachers Los Angeles hailed the ruling in a news release late Friday night.

“The court’s swift and decisive action shows just how desperate a move this was,” said union President Alex Caputo-Pearl.

The action was a novel approach, essentially using legal protections for students under federal law in an attempt to forestall a strike carried out under provisions of state law.

An L.A. Unified spokeswoman said the judge did not foreclose all legal avenues.

“The court decided that under the applicable court rules it made more sense for the claim to be filed as a separate lawsuit,” said Shannon Haber.


She did not say whether the district would do so.

“The district is committed to resolving the contract issues with UTLA in an amicable manner, but will take all steps necessary to protect the health, safety, and educational rights of students with disabilities, as well as of all students, including the filing of legal actions,” Haber said.

The two sides have scheduled a last-ditch negotiation session for Monday morning, tentatively scheduled to take place at City Hall at the invitation of Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Garcetti told The Times on Friday that so far he had not been invited into the room with the parties but that he was prepared to participate in any way that would be helpful.

The contract talks would be the first since mediation efforts broke down in early October.

Many observers see a strike as almost inevitable.

The district’s legal filing was based in part on the terms of a long-running settlement called the Chanda Smith Modified Consent Decree. Chanda Smith was an L.A. student who received a deficient education, according to a 1993 lawsuit, because she was deprived of services that were legally required under federal law. District officials ultimately agreed to sweeping and costly measures to assist all students with disabilities, all under the supervision of a court-appointed monitor. That agreement holds to this day.

For years, L.A. Unified has tried to get out from under the settlement, arguing that it has fixed its problems. Some parents and advocates have argued otherwise.


On Thursday, attorneys for L.A. Unified cited the settlement as reason to limit a walkout, saying the district could not satisfy its terms if employees who work with disabled students went on strike. They wanted a court order to keep those workers on the job. Such an order could have affected teachers as well as nurses, counselors and psychiatric social workers, who also are part of the union.

L.A. Unified has about 60,000 disabled students, more than 12% of overall enrollment, district officials said.

The district has offered teachers a 6% raise spread over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants a 6.5% raise that would take effect all at once and a year sooner.

But the issues that the union is pressing for go well beyond wages. UTLA also is demanding a significant reduction in class sizes and the hiring of enough nurses, librarians and counselors to “fully staff” campuses across the nation’s second-largest school system. Union leaders have framed their activism as a fight for the future of public education.

Beutner has said that some of the union’s proposals are worthy but that, if accepted, they would immediately push the school district into insolvency.

The superintendent wants as narrow a focus as possible in contract talks. Unlike the teachers, he doesn’t want to deliberate over whether there is too much standardized testing or too little control over privately run charter schools that operate on district-owned campuses.


Twitter: @howardblume