Teams from the teachers union and the L.A. Unified School District are working long hours this weekend to settle a teachers’ strike that has so far cost students five days of normal instruction.
Hopes have been rising for a quick resolution but some already are expressing anxiety about what could be included in a settlement. Teachers are concerned that whatever gains they achieve — in smaller classes and better school staffing — could be too little or too short-lived. Advocates worry that the best interests of students could take a back seat to political exigencies. And administrators fret that the district — in trying to meet teachers’ demands — could take away some of the authority of principals.
On Saturday, bargaining teams met at City Hall for nearly 12 hours, from 10:57 a.m. to 10:28 p.m. They resumed talks about 10:15 a.m. Sunday, 45 minutes earlier than scheduled.
The office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, which is mediating the talks, has been sending out the news of when they start and stop. With both sides honoring a new confidentiality agreement, that is just about the only information being released.
The long hours could be seen as an indication of serious intent to settle, perhaps even a sign of progress. They also suggest the difficulty of reaching a settlement in time for teachers to return to class Tuesday, after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“Since Thursday they’ve stayed at the table and, as I understand it, the talks have been productive every day,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who has been in contact with both sides. “They remain committed to staying at the table through the holiday and that’s a good thing. People are giving it their all.”
The broad outlines of the bargaining are well known. L.A. Unified has wanted the talks to be as narrow as possible, focusing on salary and a few proposals on each side. The union has put forward a more sweeping list of demands, including a greater role in decision-making — and has framed its fight as a struggle to safeguard the future of public education.
A coalition of community organizations sent a letter to both parties Saturday night, stressing that the interests of students need to remain front and center.
“We ask that you honor Dr. King’s legacy of compassion, justice and equity,” wrote the coalition, which included Community Coalition, InnerCity Struggle, Families in Schools and United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “We ask that you honor the role that we all play in supporting our highest-need youth with high-quality resources, personal attention, deep commitment and love.”
While it was written to both sides, the letter was meant as a diplomatic but very real warning to the nation’s second-largest school system.
These advocacy groups have accused the district of improperly spending new state funding designated for students who are from low-income families, are learning English or are in the foster-care system.
Community Coalition recently was a plaintiff in a lawsuit accusing the district of using this money for general expenses. L.A. Unified denied wrongdoing but agreed to redirect and better justify its use of the earmarked funding.
The funds in question include $323 million in the district’s nearly $2-billion current reserve. District officials have said some of this money could go toward settling the dispute with the teachers union, while also insisting that it would be spent properly — to benefit the targeted students.
Concerns also are being raised by the union that represents principals, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, even though its members have found a lot of common cause with teachers.
Administrators also confront daily the teachers’ issues of large class sizes, part-time nurses and overworked counselors. They, too, worry about the growth of privately operated charter schools, and question the background of L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner — who has not run a school or a school district previously.
But the union parts company with UTLA over teachers’ demands for more authority at schools — at the expense of principals, as AALA President Juan Flecha wrote in its weekly newsletter.
The administrators union, he wrote, “is vehemently against UTLA’s proposals to castrate the little to almost no decision-making authority principals currently have.”
At the negotiating table, the teachers’ union and the district have moved toward middle ground in the last two weeks.
The union, for example, has dropped a proposal for teachers to have more control over the amount of standardized testing of students.
For its part, the district has agreed to new hiring, a step in the direction of the union’s demand for “fully staffed” schools and smaller classes.
Class sizes are a good example of the complexity of the talks. The size of any given class varies by grade, by subject matter and even by type of program and funding source. The parties also must take into account both the average size of classes and the minimum and maximum sizes that would be allowed.
Besides determining what money is available and what it could pay for, there’s also a question of instructional benefit. Union leaders are under pressure to provide relief to teachers at all levels.