Op-Ed: Rather than waging a contract war at home, L.A. teachers should take their demands to Sacramento
I spend time in schools every week and I talk to teachers facing very real challenges: large classes full of students mostly living in poverty, the ever-increasing cost of housing, less certainty in retirement because of underfunded pensions, and a contract that doesn’t respect their talents. And while many of us are quick to say we stand with teachers, far fewer offer real solutions to their plight.
As a former LAUSD teacher, I know how difficult their working conditions are. I began my career teaching middle school English in Watts, where I had too many students in a class, not enough support and was laid off by “last in, first out” budget cuts. I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who kept going.
And now, as the vice president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, I’m sorry that in our contract negotiations the district cannot offer teachers more.
As we fight among ourselves in Los Angeles, with a strike in the offing, the root causes of public education’s problems go unaddressed.
Years of over-promising and poor planning by the board — no fault of the teachers — have led the district to the edge of financial insolvency and with it, potential layoffs of teachers and many other district workers, and school closures. An unwillingness to make tough choices in the past has resulted in more than $15 billion in unfunded liability for employee and retiree healthcare, just as high numbers of baby boomers are retiring. That shortfall adds to an annual deficit of $500 million, which prompted a recent directive from the county requiring the district to find more cuts in next year’s budget by Monday, two days after a planned union march.
I understand that the 10% raise teachers received in 2015 came after years of sacrifice caused by the financial crisis, and now the 6% ongoing raise we’re offering (plus a 3% retroactive raise to last year) is far less than what teachers actually deserve. And although average compensation for a teacher in LAUSD is now over $110,000, almost a third of that is in healthcare costs and pensions.
Teachers and the district are saddled with a high tab for these essential, promised but underfunded benefits. If we don’t address these costs now, in less than a decade, half of LAUSD’s budget will go to cover them, crowding out billions that could pay for salary increases, class-size reductions and support services.
Union leadership isn’t helping matters. Rather than work with the district to increase funding at the state level, where the majority of LAUSD’s funding comes from, United Teachers of Los Angeles has pursued a purely us-versus-them policy. If we were to capitulate to the union’s demands, the books show the district would be bankrupt in the next few months. Union leaders are also demanding to limit magnet schools and other innovative solutions to increase achievement, insisting on less flexibility for schools and teachers, and calling for a strike that will harm the district’s children, 84% of whom live in poverty and rely on their schools for meals, support and childcare.
UTLA’s demands will, according to financial experts the district has consulted, lead to 12,000 layoffs and austerity cuts, accomplishing the exact opposite of what teachers are asking for. Rather than wage a political war, our teachers union should insist that the state adequately fund our schools. And when the largest lobby in Sacramento for years has been teachers unions, it’s unconscionable this hasn’t already happened.
Despite being the fifth largest economy in the world, California ranks near the bottom in state per-pupil funding. And despite promising teachers a stable retirement in the form of a pension, the state racked up a $100-billion unfunded pension liability and insisted that school districts make up the difference. One-fifth of the 10% raise that LAUSD teachers received in 2015 were mandated by the state to be spent on pensions. Out of the largest 10 districts in California, LAUSD ranks second lowest in average class size. And yet I see every day that classes are too crowded; I can only imagine what they look like in those other districts. Sacramento needs to act.
As we fight among ourselves in Los Angeles, with a strike in the offing, the root causes of public education’s problems — inadequate state funding and ballooning healthcare and pension costs — go unaddressed.
Not only will students be hurt if schools are closed due to a strike, but so too will our incredibly dedicated teachers whose interests get lost in this fight. We owe it to them to find a solution — and that solution is in Sacramento. I would be happy to sit down with union leaders and start that work today.
Nick Melvoin is a former L.A. Unified teacher who has served on the Board of Education since July 2017.
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