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California

L.A. teachers riding blue wave of support, challenging LAUSD’s strike strategy

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16, 2019 Westminster Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Jessica Dunn
Striking teachers like Westminster Elementary kindergarten instructor Jessica Dunn, have captured public sympathy.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A week ago, Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner went to Sacramento to nail down support for the school district if teachers decided to go on strike.

He came back sounding very optimistic that lawmakers understood the district’s finances were so perilous that it could not afford what the teachers were demanding.

But the images of teachers marching in the rain, often cheered by parents and students, have amounted to powerful politics in this blue state, and have weakened the district’s hand.

The teachers have told personal stories that many find hard to argue with: that too many students shouldn’t be crowded into classes, that schools should have nurses on hand every day. And that has up to now trumped Beutner’s grim financial diagnosis, even though it was largely endorsed by a county oversight agency.

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Now, some lawmakers Beutner met with less than a week ago have scheduled a news conference Friday “in support of teachers and families to demand that LAUSD negotiate fairly.”

As the L.A. teachers’ strike enters its fifth day and a new round of negotiations begin, two realities are emerging: The tremendous enthusiasm over the walkout and the toll its taking on the school system.

Inside campuses, skeleton crews of supervisors, subs and remaining workers have herded students into large spaces, showing movies and plugging students into online coursework. About two-thirds did not show up, even though many working parents depend on schools to provide childcare and even meals.

The district estimates that each day of the strike is costing $10 million to $15 million, and Thursday’s student attendance was the lowest during the strike.

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L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose possible entry into the 2020 presidential field has been challenged by the strike, is now trying to take a leadership role in ending it.

This was evident Thursday when he hosted negotiating teams from the school district and union at City Hall. They were the first talks in a week.

Assisted by senior aide Matt Szabo, Garcetti also has been on the phone with both parties trying to work out what a final deal might look like.

“The mayor asked and received commitment for both parties to stay at the table until they reach an agreement,” said spokeswoman Andrea Garcia on Thursday. “Mayor Garcetti has cleared his schedule and is in regular contact with both parties and state leaders, including the governor.”

Given his possible presidential ambitions, the strike’s outcome needs to be a win, and preferably a quick win. Garcetti had paid limited attention to the nation’s second-largest school district until the labor unrest.

Gov. Gavin Newsom seemingly has much less at risk than Garcetti, but he, too has been pulled into the fray.

Thanks to higher tax revenues, his new budget proposal for the state delivers added funds that could contribute to a settlement. He also faces pressure from a key ally — teachers unions — to do something to control charter schools — either by increasing oversight over them or limiting their growth, or both.

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Politics around charters are tricky though; both unions and charter supporters are powerful special interests.

United Teachers Los Angeles, whose power in L.A. schools had been diminished by the rise of charter schools, seems to be on roll this week. But that might not last.

The organizing momentum has energized members. That’s especially important because a Supreme Court ruling last year made all union dues and fees optional. And, at this point, members can look forward to a deal that meets or exceeds reasonable expectations.

Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl has raised the expectations of his members — and their animus toward Beutner — to a fever pitch. And yet a final deal may look a lot like the district’s most recent offer in the key particulars.

Peripheral elements could prove crucial — like a pilot program using union-backed reforms. Tougher accountability for charter schools at the state level also would be something the union could sell as a win.

The length of the strike also matters, as does the unknown depth of public support. For Caputo-Pearl to win policy concessions on charters at the state level, timing could be everything.

The superintendent came into office last May on a divided vote, and the mixed loyalty is showing, too. Board President Monica Garcia has often been by Beutner’s side at news conferences this week. Others on the board have been less visible.

Board member George McKenna, who voted against hiring Beutner, called this week for an immediate settlement — and he seemed to be talking to Beutner more than to the union.

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Scott Schmerelson, who also voted against Beutner, issued a statement openly siding with teachers, saying he could no longer accept that board members should present a united front.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume


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