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Highly paid substitutes, lessons in large spaces — how L.A. Unified is preparing for a teachers strike

Highly paid substitutes, lessons in large spaces — how L.A. Unified is preparing for a teachers strike
Alma Lucatero, a teacher at Nevin Elementary School, center, and other members of UTLA pick up materials for a possible teachers strike. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

With more than 30,000 teachers union members ready to strike Thursday, the Los Angeles Unified School District is preparing to bring in highly paid substitutes, supervise students in large spaces such as auditoriums and ease background checks for parent volunteers, according to records obtained by The Times.

The school system probably will also use online instruction in an effort to continue to provide education.

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United Teachers Los Angeles, which has scheduled the strike, also represents substitute teachers. But in October, the Los Angeles Board of Education authorized $3 million to hire thousands of outside substitutes, including teachers, campus aides, special education assistants, nurses and teachers aides, to replace absent union members.

The district began searching in September for companies that could provide non-LAUSD employees to work such positions, according to the request for proposals. Contracts were signed with at least five agencies.

A spokeswoman said this month the district would “bring in about 400 substitutes” if there was a strike, and that about 2,000 district employees who have teaching credentials but are not in the teachers union have been assigned to work in specific schools or areas.

“We have a duty to provide an education to our students, and we will take appropriate measures to do so,” a district spokeswoman said in a statement.

The union has said it will fight the district on outside hiring for temporary positions and is “exploring all options to consider legal action to protect the work of UTLA substitutes,” according to a statement last month.

The substitutes

The district’s current plans would put schools at about 8% of regular staffing by teachers union members.

But the October contracts with agencies, including the Charter Substitute Teacher Network and Maxim Healthcare Services Inc., allow for more than 4,400 substitutes to be brought in. In many cases, these substitutes would make more than regular L.A. Unified substitutes for the same jobs.

A regular K-12 substitute for the district makes $190 a day for the first 20 days. The contract subs in the same position could make $227 to $315 a day, depending on which agency provides them.

Preschool substitute teachers ordinarily make a maximum of $167.12 daily in their first 35 days. The contract subs could make up to $240 a day.

Substitute teachers for students with disabilities usually can make up to $190 a day in their first 20 days. The contracted substitutes could reach maximum daily rates of $227 to $385, depending on the agency.

L.A. Unified officials would not say which roles the 400 substitutes they were initially planning for would fill or how they would be distributed across the district.

Parent volunteers

Emails and presentations from district staff to school leaders obtained by The Times showed that principals were encouraged in the fall to hold meetings to solicit parents’ help during a strike.

The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal to make volunteering at a school easier with an “on demand safety volunteer” application. It would allow parents to volunteer on campuses without the regularly required state Department of Justice background checks. Instead, “if the superintendent or local district superintendent determines that schools need additional support,” principals could collect these expedited forms and check the parents’ names to make sure they are not registered sex offenders. A strike would merit such a change in procedure, an L.A. Unified spokeswoman said.

Becky Cunningham, a mother of a second-grader at Playa Vista Elementary and a sixth-grader at Katherine Johnson Stem Academy in Westchester, said her kids would not cross the picket line; they’ll be in a co-op of students whose parents will take turns watching them during the strike. By staying home, they’ll be withholding attendance money from the district and supporting their teachers, she said.

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But Cunningham will volunteer at the middle school.

“I do not view that as crossing the picket lines, because I do not view myself as replacing a teacher,” she said. “Two things are required in order to have a school: students and teachers.”

Her role, she said, would be more like day care — to be there for those students who might need to come to school for meals or because their parents can’t take time off from work. She wants to ensure they are safe.

Lesson plans

L.A. Unified has said that all of its schools will remain open during a strike and that students will be fed and be able to go to after-school programs, though not all extracurricular activities and sports will continue. The district also promises that students will receive instruction. But with the regular teachers gone and substitute staffing thin, it’s hard to know what that instruction will look like.

According to the strike planning documents obtained by The Times, each school principal was asked to fill out a “Pre-Work Stoppage Worksheet” listing the number of large spaces on campus, such as gyms, auditoriums, multipurpose rooms and cafeterias, and how many students each of these spaces would hold.

A work stoppage worksheet for Colfax Elementary School from September 2018.
A work stoppage worksheet for Colfax Elementary School from September 2018. (Los Angeles Unified School District)

Potential teaching plans include online courses, “lessons for outdoor activities” and “ ‘grab and go’ resource materials designed to support [about] 80 students at a time with tips for volunteers.”

Many of the documents the district gave The Times concerning “continuity of learning” during a work stoppage were fully or partly redacted, making it difficult to obtain more details.

One of the slides in a presentation on a "potential work stoppage," sent to L.A. Unified administrators. The district sent a redacted version to The Times.
One of the slides in a presentation on a "potential work stoppage," sent to L.A. Unified administrators. The district sent a redacted version to The Times. (Los Angeles Unified School District)
(Los Angeles Unified School District)

Sympathy strikers

In theory, any L.A. Unified employee who is not a UTLA member is supposed to report to work during a teachers strike. But workers in some of the five other employee unions in L.A. Unified may choose not to cross the picket line.

The unions have different stances on the issue.

SEIU Local 99, which represents close to 30,000 service employees including teacher assistants, bus drivers, food service workers, gardeners and custodians, has warned members that their jobs may be at risk if they choose to strike, but is asking members at schools to let the union know if at least 80% on a given campus plan to join a sympathy strike.

“We are still assessing how many school sites will participate in sympathy strikes,” SEIU 99 spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos said in an email Thursday. “We are using the 80% threshold as a way to ensure that workers are protected through strength in numbers.”

The California School Employees Assn. represents about 4,000 clerical, technical and business service employees in the district and is asking its members to inform their supervisors if they plan to strike, said Local 500 president Letetsia Fox.

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“We are allowing our members to make that decision,” Fox said.

Fox, a senior finance manager at Dorsey High School, said she will not cross the picket line.

“I stand in solidarity … with my brothers and sisters of UTLA in their quest to receive more resources for their students,” she said.

Student safety

The only non-teaching members of employee unions certain not to participate in a sympathy strike are school police, who are legally barred from doing so. A Los Angeles School Police Department officer will be present on every middle and high school campus, and two city police officers will be stationed at each of the elementary schools within city boundaries, authorities said.

In areas of the district outside the city limits, school police are including sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement agencies in the planning, said school police Deputy Chief Timothy Anderson.

The aim, Anderson said, is to ensure that students can get to and from school safely, and that demonstrations remain peaceful. School police will not replace teachers in supervising students and do not plan to issue citations for minor infractions such as jaywalking unless someone’s life is in danger, he said.

“We’re not going to be enforcing truancy,” Anderson said of the law that requires students to attend school unless they have a valid reason — though the district has said that striking does not qualify as such a reason. Schools still could count students as absent and report them as truant, but school police will not be involved.

Some organizations and community centers are preparing to accommodate students who won’t be at home or in school, said Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, executive vice president of Community Coalition, a South L.A. advocacy group.

Community Coalition “will be open during the strike and it will be a safe space for students whose parents give them the permission not to go to school,” she said. “We will do our best to have staff that are there to support especially high school students in any academic work.”

Some students — especially older ones — may be sent to school but then decide not to cross the picket line, Montes-Rodriguez said. Public places such as parks might be busier than usual as a result.

The mayor has acknowledged as much, saying that city libraries and recreation centers will be ready.

Times staff writers Maya Lau and Cindy Chang contributed to this report.

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