California

Could last-minute talks and maneuvers forestall a teachers’ strike?

Alex Caputo-Pearl
United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl addresses thousands of teachers union members and supporters at a downtown rally in December. It appears as though negotiators may meet again.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

A teachers’ strike next week seems all but inevitable, but two developments on Thursday could change the course of events.

First, leaders of the union representing Los Angeles teachers tentatively agreed to meet Monday with school district officials for talks — following 12 weeks without serious face-to-face negotiations.

Then, separately, attorneys for Los Angeles Unified took legal action to try to force teachers to continue to provide services to students with disabilities during a strike. It is not immediately clear if the court order they are asking for would halt or delay a strike — or simply limit its scope.

The new legal move did not affect the union’s willingness to resume negotiations.

Both sides said Thursday that they want to reach an agreement; each side still questions the other’s good faith.

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

“We want serious talks. That’s what we expect Monday,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “We’re going to meet with them on Monday, no matter what, in hopes it’s going to be productive.”

“We understand,” he said later, “that any negotiation is going to be a compromise.”

Caputo-Pearl spoke before the district announced at 3 p.m. that it would be taking legal action to force at least some striking teachers to continue working. He said of that news Thursday night: “If Beutner really cared about special education students, he would have responded to our proposals on special education class-size caps, which would relieve the burden of our overcrowded classrooms and overwhelming caseloads. It is disingenuous to recognize the value of our teachers only in the role they play during a strike.”

The district’s legal filing was made in connection with a long-running settlement called the Chanda Smith Modified Consent Decree. Chanda Smith was a student who received a deficient education because she was deprived of services that could have helped her and that were legally required under federal law. Attorneys representing her filed suit in 1993 as a way to help all students with disabilities. District officials ultimately agreed to sweeping and costly measures, 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, district officials found a novel way to take advantage of the unwanted, ongoing supervision.

District attorneys said they cannot satisfy the terms of the settlement if employees who work with disabled students go on strike. They are therefore seeking a court order to keep those workers on the job. Such an order could affect teachers as well as nurses, counselors and psychiatric social workers, who also are part of the union.

At the very least, a court order, if granted, would seem to apply to students in classes set up exclusively for the disabled. But increasingly large numbers of disabled students receive some or all of their education in regular classes, with support as needed, in a process called mainstreaming.

The original Chanda Smith suit was filed under federal law, which requires school systems to provide a free and appropriate education to the disabled. The district’s filing this week was based on the same federal protections for these students.

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

Regardless of the legal filing, district leaders quickly responded to the union’s offer to resume talks. They have called repeatedly for negotiations to continue.

“We welcome UTLA’s willingness to return to contract negotiations to avoid a strike that would do nothing to increase funding for public education or would only hurt the students, families and communities most in need,” said district spokeswoman Shannon Haber. “Los Angeles Unified remains committed to doing everything possible to avoid a strike and provide Los Angeles students with the best education possible.”

Many observers still expect a strike to begin next Thursday.

The district has offered 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.

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner has said the union proposals, if accepted, would immediately push the school district into insolvency.

“The challenge is what do we do with the resources we have today and how do we work together at the state level to get more resources,” Beutner said in a Wednesday interview on KPCC. “We have to step away from the rhetoric and start dealing with facts.”

Beutner has pointed out that the union’s last written counteroffer was on July 24. The district has made proposals since then, including some written concessions.

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

Caputo-Pearl said there would be no preconditions for a meeting on Monday, but also did not back down from demands that Beutner has characterized as impossible to satisfy.

Beutner or his team, Caputo-Pearl said, would have to arrive Monday “with a clear written proposal,” a commitment to spend “substantially” from the district’s reserve and “to engage all of our proposals.”

“The onus is on the district to make an offer that isn’t just crumbs,” he said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume