Did Meeting Between LAUSD & Teachers Union Leaders Make A Strike Less Likely? Depends On Who You Ask

Members of the union representing L.A. Unified School District teachers, United Teachers Los Angeles, hold a rally outside of Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood in August 2017. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

With the clock ticking toward a possible strike authorization vote, the leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers union sat down this week. What happened behind closed doors depends on whose account you believe: Either they met to discuss a possible deal, or they met to discuss why the district would not set a date to mediate a new deal.

At stake is whether the more than 30,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles stay on the job or ultimately decide to walk out of the nation's second largest school district, which serves nearly half a million students. The district's teachers already have been working without a contract for a year. Seventeen months of talks on a new contract with the district recently ended in impasse.

Los Angeles Unified school superintendent Austin Beutner met with the president of the district's teachers union on Wednesday morning, according to a letter obtained by KPCC/LAist.

Beutner's letter gives the impression that the meeting went very well — and even hinted at the parameters of a possible resolution of a lengthy dispute over a new teacher contract.

But United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl said late Wednesday that the letter papered-over bigger problems in the bargaining process.

"It's deceitful sleight-of-hand on [Beutner's] part, unfortunately," Caputo-Pearl said of the letter.

The encounter between UTLA and LAUSD's leaders — and an apparent he-said he-said about what took place during the conversation — comes about a week before teachers begin a vote to authorize a possible strike.

Read that letter here:

In his letter, Beutner said he and UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl were able to "find common ground" during their meeting "on a number of issues, and we need to build on that."

Beutner even strongly hinted at a salary offer on which district officials might be willing to close a contract deal — something "similar" to what Beutner characterized as 6 percent raises that other LAUSD employee unions have already accepted.

But in an interview, Caputo-Pearl said this discussion of salary figures never came up in the meeting.

Caputo-Pearl also said he went to the meeting to express frustration that district negotiators have not agreed to begin mediation until September 27 — too late, in the union's view.

"It's a deceitful letter covering over the fact that the district is stalling," Caputo-Pearl said.

While Caputo-Pearl said Beutner did express agreement with some of UTLA's proposals during Wednesday's meeting, he also urged Beutner to allow mediation to begin immediately so the two sides could discuss it in a formal setting.

In his letter, Beutner said he is "available to meet with you at any time in advance of the mediation date if you feel we can chart a quicker path to an agreement."

But Caputo-Pearl said the best course for resolving the dispute was through formal talks. "When you go outside the bargaining process," the union leader said, "things can get pretty fast and loose."

Beutner's letter urged Caputo-Pearl to "minimize any disruption to students."

"We hope UTLA shares this goal," the superintendent wrote. "I am reminded of an old adage, 'when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.' It is a responsibility we share, despite our differences, to make sure students are protected."

The teachers union's strike authorization vote begins on Aug. 23 and lasts until Aug. 30.

UPDATE: On Thursday, Caputo-Pearl responded with a letter of his own.