I’m a member of United Teachers of Los Angeles, and I’m voting to strike on Thursday.
The California Public Employment Relations Board has appointed a mediator to head off a strike. But after 16 months of negotiations, the Los Angeles Unified School District has rejected almost all of UTLA’s proposals. The district claims it does not have the money to fund what we’re asking for, even though the district admits it has a $1.2-billion reserve. The teachers union believes the reserve is significantly larger. From the union’s perspective, mediation should have started at the beginning of the month, but the district is stalling. The strike is scheduled to begin Oct. 3.
Los Angeles Unified Supt. Austin Beutner recently said, “I view myself as the chief kid advocate.” He says always asks, “Where’s the kid in that?” when he makes decisions. If that’s so, a strike should be easy to avoid because UTLA’s demands are focused on helping students by improving our schools.
California ranks 48th out of 50 states in teacher-student ratio, and LAUSD is often the worst offender in the state. At my school, James Monroe High, the administrators do a good job with the situation they’re handed, but we started school this month with at least 70 academic classes of 40 or more students. It’s not at all atypical.
Our existing contract contains class-size limits, but there is also a specific clause that allows the district to set aside the limits during a financial crisis. As it was initially negotiated and understood, it was a reasonable clause. However, the district has wielded it against the schools by declaring questionable financial crises, allowing it to lay off teachers and raise class sizes. “Financial crisis” is now invoked on an almost annual basis. No other school district in California has a similar mechanism, and with this contract, the union seeks to eliminate it in Los Angeles.
Many L.A. Unified schools do not have a full-time nurse or librarian — the union is demanding one full-time librarian for every middle school and high school, and one full-time nurse for each school. The American School Counselor Assn. recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-1, and some states maintain a ratio below 225-1. The union’s modest demand is that on high school campuses, the ratio be capped at 500-1.
Students’ limited access to counselors is now made worse by counselors’ obligation to do stints of yard duty. One gain from the teachers union’s 1989 strike was the elimination of yard duty for teachers, and we now seek the same for counselors.
Vocational education teachers don’t get a planning period, and special education teachers aren’t paid for the time they spend drafting individualized reports and assessments. We’re asking for remedies in both cases.
Compensation is also a major issue. In LAUSD’s recent report “Hard Choices,” the district alleges that its teachers are overpaid by 17%. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the value of money has dropped 24% since 2007. Teachers have recovered only 10% of that in raises. We’re asking for a 6.5% raise.
Beutner calls the teachers union’s demands excessive, particularly in comparison with those of other LAUSD unions.
“We have settled on a fair basis with our other bargaining units for approximately 6%,” he told one interviewer. The district is offering teachers a 2% raise over the life of the three-year contract, retroactive to July 2017, as well as a one-time 2% bonus. This does not even match the rate of inflation. Even getting that much has been a struggle, as LAUSD originally proposed no raise at all. In one of the most expensive cities in the world, the average teacher’s take-home pay is roughly $5,000 a month — and LAUSD thinks that’s too much.
“Hard Choices” calls for reducing our retirement benefits, but these benefits are not simply given to us — we pay between 9.2% and 10.25% of our salaries into the State Teachers’ Retirement System to finance them. Eligibility requirements are continually being tightened, and our pensions are significantly less than they might seem because LAUSD teachers do not participate in the Social Security system.
Although teachers’ healthcare benefits aren’t on the table (we signed a three-year agreement related to healthcare last year), the district is trying to use that decent deal against us in these negotiations. “Hard Choices” claims that L.A. Unified is overspending for teachers’ healthcare by 44%, and the board likes to point out that teachers don’t pay monthly premiums for their coverage. But LAUSD protests too much: The increased cost for last year’s healthcare deal isn’t even paid by the district. Instead, the union, which had negotiated savings with the healthcare providers in past years, tossed some of those savings into the pot to cover the additional costs.
Underlying the district’s hard line is a long-standing criticism of teachers. We are blamed for LAUSD’s low test scores. The union cites other factors, chiefly the sharp drop in the socioeconomic status of students over the past several decades. Today, 76% of our students live in poverty, 25% are just learning English and 90% are members of minority populations. Many LAUSD parent never had the opportunity to go to high school in their native countries. L.A. Unified students are bright and capable and it is a pleasure to teach them, but they start off considerably behind the student populations of most other school districts.
If Beutner the “kid advocate” wants to know where he can find what’s best for children, that’s simple — it’s in United Teachers of Los Angeles’ contract demands.