LOS ANGELES (CN) – Rain fell on more than 30,000 Los Angeles Unified School District educators as they picketed and marched outside classrooms and schools Monday, the first day of a strike demanding class size reductions, more social workers and librarians and better pay for teachers at the nation’s second largest public-school districts.
The strike comes after a months-long impasse between the district and the United Teachers of Los Angeles union, and affects 700,000 students at more than 10,000 schools. Parents, a handful of students and other school staff braved the deluge to chant in support of teachers who, after weeks of fruitless negotiating with the district, launched their first citywide strike in nearly 30 years.
The union wants the district to use its $1.8 billion reserve to reduce class sizes, add nurses to every school campus and cap how much money charter schools receive across the district.
On Friday, the district revised an offer centered on a $130 million budget increase for the upcoming school year, promising to add 1,200 more educators, nurses and librarians to schools and reduce class size by two students in all middle and high schools.
The district’s revised offer was backed by news that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2019-20 budget includes a $3 billion increase in statewide funding for public education.
But UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a press conference Friday that the district’s latest offer won’t end the strike threat since it’s only valid for one year.
Caputo-Pearl said the state budget office told him the district could receive $140 million under Newsom's proposed budget.
On Monday morning outside Benjamin Franklin High School, several students and teachers marched in the rain wearing rain slickers and ponchos and holding picket signs. Other students watched from inside the campus and took photos with their mobile phones.
Junior Abraham Merino, 16, said conditions in his classes are getting worse.
“Classes are getting packed,” said Merino. “In some classes there are desks lined to the wall. I’m out here for my education but my teachers deserve better. Us students deserve better.”
Monica Whalen, who teaches AP government at the high school, said about 90 percent of the school’s faculty walked out Monday. She said there is only one social worker for the school on top of counselors, but there are many issues students face – including homelessness, food uncertainty and other problems – students could discuss with more resources.
“With their status a lot of students are scared and they need a lot of support,” said Whalen. “There is only one social worker for the whole school. But it’s not enough.”
Outside Aldama Elementary School, third grade teacher Danis Cybulski said school funding gaps have deprived students of basic services. Aldama’s school nurse is only on campus twice a week and the librarian is on site every other week, Cybulski said.
“We’d like [a nurse] here every day,” Cybulski said. “Being K thru 5, [we teach] foundational reading. We need librarians and for kids to have access to books.”
The school’s psychologist, who is shared with another school, is typically on site only once a week and balances a massive caseload between both campuses, Cybulski added while taking cover from the rain under a canopy.
Cybulski, who called the district’s negotiating “shady and back-handed,” said she joined the picket line at 6 a.m. She noticed only a few district-hired substitute teachers on campus as most respected the picket line and did not enter the school.
Meanwhile in south Los Angeles, parent Tiffany Gardner, 33, joined the picket line with teachers on Monday.
Gardner’s 10-year-old son Isaiah was born with a chromosome abnormality and has a full-time nurse while he is at school. After being home-schooled for four years, Isaiah started fifth grade at 74th Street Elementary School but Gardner said the school was unprepared for her son’s needs and services.
“The school didn’t know what to do with him,” said Gardner.
Isaiah uses a program on an iPad to communicate with faculty, but Gardner said staff waited for almost a year for the device to arrive and were eventually locked out due to an error.
During a press conference leading up to the strike, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said, “There are ways to educate kids that don’t rely on a physical body.” But Gardner said the district’s reliance on computers to teach students does not fill her with confidence.
She also bristled at the school asking whether she would send her son to school during the strike.
“Of course, I can’t send him,” said Gardner. “I don’t want the teachers to be out of class, but I also know at the same time if students are sitting in those seats the district is being paid. My only way to fight is with empty seats.”
Alma Ricardo, who teaches fourth grade in a bilingual classroom, and school psychologist Francisco Martinez wore rain slickers outside Los Angeles City Hall where they joined about 60,000 people in a rally and march to Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters. Both work for Normandy Avenue Elementary School.
Ricardo said more resources are needed for students, like a nurse who is available throughout the school week.
Martinez said his workload as the sole school psychologist means he does not get enough time to provide emotional or behavioral support to students.
“There is not enough time in the day,” said Martinez.
Union representatives said about 90 percent of its 32,000 members participated in Monday’s rally. Beutner meanwhile said just 3,500 people took part in protests at schools despite the large crowds who gathered in downtown.
“We remain committed to resolve the contract negotiations as soon as possible. We are in discussions with the governor, the mayor and state superintendent of public education, because it is our desire to have all of our educators well supported, back in schools, serving the needs of our students,” Beutner said.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Gov. Newsom said, “I strongly urge all parties to go back to the negotiating table and find an immediate path forward that puts kids back into classrooms and provides parents certainty.”
California’s new governor added his proposed budget would put a large dent in school district pension debt, provide new funding for special education and a large investment into kindergarten through 12th grade.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti encouraged both the teachers’ union and the school district to reach a compromise.
“A good deal is when everyone feels like they’re outside of their comfort zone,” said Garcetti, adding neither side should turn the other into caricatures and dehumanize one another.