Deal Reached to End LA Unified Teacher Strike

United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex-Caputo Pearl, center, joins LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner on Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019, ahead of a union vote to end the teacher strike. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The end of a week-long teacher strike in Los Angeles may be near, as nearly 30,000 union members and educators approved a proposed contract deal on Tuesday.

The contract agreement addresses reductions in classroom size, along with the hiring of more nurses, counselors and librarians across the Los Angeles Unified School District. A deal to increase teacher pay agreed to prior to the strike will also go into effect if the deal is approved by union membership, raising pay by roughly 6 percent.

Critics of the agreement have been divisive, with some questioning why teachers went on strike in the first place.

Preliminary numbers point to the agreement being approved by union members according to the United Teachers of Los Angeles at a Tuesday night press conference. Votes will continue to be counted on Wednesday.

“The struggle is not over but we’ve achieved a lot with this agreement,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. “What an incredibly proud day this is to be a teacher.”

Caputo-Pearl added, “We didn’t get everything we wanted in special education. There’s going to be some left to struggle for next time.”

Critics of the agreement said special education and elementary schools were not fully addressed. Under the new contract, special education teachers will be given two days a year to address compliance issues and some of their caseloads will be reduced but class sizes were not addressed.

Tiffany Gardner, whose 10-year-old son Isaiah was born with a chromosome abnormality, said his school was unprepared when he started the school year.

After the tentative contract agreement was announced, Gardner said she was happy the strike would be over, but then she read through it and saw that none of her concerns over special education were addressed.

“Special education got left in the dust,” Gardner said in a phone interview. “And what about early education? Class sizes are some of the biggest issues why parents leave public schools.”

The agreement will reduce class sizes at targeted elementary schools and some middle schools but that will not happen for a few years.

“We missed a week of work and wages and came back with nothing,” Gardner said. “We marched in the rain. We put our lives on hold and then we got nothing. It’s a slap in the face.”

Earlier in the day, some were optimistic about the strike being over.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s a lot more to do,” said Kleber Camacho Jr., a science teacher at Esteban Torres High School in East Los Angeles. “The reasons why money is tight are still out there.”

He and his fellow teachers were gathered at the school, waiting for a vote at 5 p.m. He predicted approval after the deal was announced Tuesday morning. “There were cheers at the rally,” he said.

“We are getting money for a nurse,” he said, as part of the deal that promises a nurse on every campus and librarians and counselors for the larger schools. In addition, the deal carries with it an effort to regulate charter schools which currently operate with very few constraints.

“They are giving charters the locations that have money,” said Camacho. He noted that a charter has set up on the campus of the middle school directly across from his public school, where they have the pick of the students. “They are competing for students on our campus,” he said. “The selection of students is a big factor in the success of a school. Charters send out flyers on how great they are, how bad we are. It’s all propaganda.”

He said that as charters take the best students and operate in prime school locations, the public schools will continue to struggle. “We get lower and lower enrollment each year so they have to keep closing schools. So Beutner wants to keep replacing them with charters, he wants us to turn into New Orleans.”

The public school system in New Orleans has all but collapsed.

Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was elected to his position by the Los Angeles School Board last May. “The frustration felt by our educators, the poverty that impacts our students and the politicized nature of leadership in Los Angeles Unified have been decades in the making,” he said after the deal was announced.

Tuesday’s agreement came after a marathon bargaining session at City Hall over the long weekend. Reacting to the agreement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the proposed deal the start of a “new chapter” for public education in Los Angeles.

When asked by a reporter if the strike helped spur the deal, Garcetti was blunt. “There’s no question. Look, the strike was painful and it had a cost. The strike helped at the end of the day, listening to each other helped, and I think some mutual territory helped.”  

United Teachers of Los Angeles Alex Caputo-Pearl said the strike was a decade in the making. “My view is that educators and parents reached a boiling point. It’s not just a boiling point over the last six months. But over the last 10 years,” he said.

The union posted the full tentative agreement online Tuesday afternoon.

Over the next few school years LA Unified will hire 17 counselors, more than 80 full-time librarians and 300 full-time nurses. The deal also includes a 6 percent salary increase and more oversight on testing.

The agreement includes the creation of a joint task and committees to address more green space within the urban school district, charter school placements within the local community and adult and early education. Additionally, up to 28 schools will be phased into a new program that exempts sites from “random” searches of students.

With over 600,000 students, LA Unified is the second largest school district in the United States behind New York.

Outside City Hall, teacher Anne Scatolini repeated to passing union members dressed in red a simple phrase: “Read the agreement first. We have to read that agreement before we vote.”

Scatolini, a teacher at Phoenix Continuation School in West Los Angeles, said it was about time teachers were paid a livable wage and saw their class sizes shrink.

“I would like to believe that the work we’ve done has netted us the class size reductions, the pay increase for a livable wage,” said Scatolini.

Educators from over 1,200 schools first took to the picket lines Jan. 14. Union representatives say more than 15,000 parents have joined the strike, and the school district says it’s losing between $22 million to $24 million a day due to waning student attendance. The latest figures offered by the district late Thursday estimated the loss of state funding at about $125 million, some of which is offset because striking teachers do not get paid.

California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, was supportive of the teachers during their strike. “I am glad that LAUSD and UTLA have come to an agreement, and I want to thank the thousands of dedicated teachers, parents and students who were powerfully demonstrating their passion for our public schools over the last nine days. Increases in state funding are already translating into real progress for kids and classrooms, including investments in community schools,” he said.

Newsom’s proposed state budget offers $6 billion to help put a dent in school districts’ pension debt obligation. An estimated $140 million in new funding will make its way to LAUSD if Newsom’s budget wins legislative approval.

Last week, Los Angeles County earmarked $10 million for mental health funding within the school district.

“I’m ready to get back to work,” said Camacho, the science teacher. “Finally.”

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