Why LAUSD's 30,000 Teachers Might Go On Strike

Members of United Teachers Los Angeles — a union representing more than 30,000 L.A. Unified School District teachers, librarians, nurses and other school workers — cast strike authorization votes at Thomas Starr King Middle School in the Silver Lake neighborhood on Thurs., Aug. 23, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Teachers in Los Angeles Unified schools have voted overwhelmingly to give leaders of their union permission to call a strike if contentious contract talks with district officials fall apart.

Leaders of the union, United Teachers Los Angeles, still cannot legally call for a strike until completing state mediation, a process that can take weeks. But if UTLA leaders do act on their threat, it would be the first teachers strike in LAUSD since 1989.

Roughly a year and a half of contract talks stalled in July. Almost every day since, the already-tattered relationship between UTLA leaders — who represent more than 30,000 teachers, librarians, nurses, social workers and counselors — and LAUSD leadership frays a little more.

The first mediation date is still one month away, and in recent weeks, both the union and the district filed formal complaints against each other.

Why is this war of words escalating so quickly? Why did contract talks reach impasse? And finally —

RIGHT, CUT TO THE PUNCHLINE: ARE THE TEACHERS GOING TO STRIKE OR NOT?

It really is too early to say with any certainty. That said: parents, it is not too early to start thinking about child care contingency plans.

It's worth remembering that LAUSD's contract talks with teachers in 2015 were also contentious. It took a lengthy battle and prolonged mediation, but the two sides eventually reached a deal.

But circumstances today are different. In 2015, state school funding was growing and L.A. Unified teachers had gone eight years without a raise. Now, state funding is flat and new superintendent Austin Beutner — whom union leaders deeply distrust — seems particularly alarmed about the cost of the union's proposals.

So a lot of things could happen: It's even possible a deal is more likely than a strike right now. But the chances of a strike are still very real.

WHY ARE UTLA AND LAUSD AT A STALEMATE?

LAUSD leaders believe the district is fast running out of money. UTLA leaders believe that's baloney.

If there's one thing preventing the two sides from reaching a deal right now, it is this disagreement. Both sides are dug in over several expensive contract items: salaries, class sizes, special education caseloads and staffing levels for counselors, deans and nurses.

The district contends accepting the union's proposals — and this is not an exaggeration — would bankrupt LAUSD. "Simple math," the district's top negotiator wrote in a July 26 letter, "shows that [the district's] reserves would be exhausted this school year should L.A. Unified accept your 'final offer.'"

But UTLA contends exactly the opposite: that the district could afford its demands but is exaggerating its current level of fiscal calamity to get the union to accept a cheaper deal.

To be sure, there are contract items that are controversial for reasons other than cost. But even if the two sides resolved those non-costly items, UTLA and LAUSD are still potentially almost $3 billion apart.

WHAT ARE THE TEACHERS ASKING FOR THAT COSTS SO MUCH?

Both sides are bargaining on a contract that would begin retroactively in June 2017 and last through June 2020. Here's what the teachers want:

  • Salaries: UTLA wants a 6.5 percent, across-the-board salary increase. LAUSD is currently offering a 2 percent increase, a one-time 2 percent bonus and a $500 classroom supply stipend. The district calculates the union's proposal costs an extra $189.4 million per year.
  • Class sizes: Among other changes, the teachers want to strike a provision in the contract that currently lets the district skirt rules on how big classes are allowed to be. Smaller class sizes equals a need to pay more teachers — so for all the attention salaries get, this item is more expensive: a district-estimated $205.7 million per year.
  • Nurses and librarians: UTLA proposes to hire a full-time nurse for every LAUSD school and a full-time librarian for every middle and high school. Estimated price tag: $81.5 million per year.
  • Counselors, social workers and deans: The union wants the district to hire a raft of new counselors for secondary schools and to provide one restorative justice advisor, dean or social worker for every 500 students in a school. The district says that would cost $247.9 million per year.
  • Special education caseloads: Where the district proposes to create a task force to study special education caseloads, the union proposes to reduce the number of students assigned to one special education teacher. This is the costliest single proposal the union makes, according to the district's accounting: an estimated $263.4 million per year.

In total, the district says these items would add nearly $1 billion a year to the district's budget.

For perspective, LAUSD's total annual budget is just over $8 billion.

BUT UTLA SAYS THE DISTRICT HAS $1.7 BILLION IN RESERVE. IS THAT TRUE?

Technically speaking, that's true. But the union's statement also leaves the misleading impression that LAUSD is perched atop a $1.7 billion pile of cash and refusing to spend it.

In reality, the district already has plans to spend almost all of this money.

LAUSD is spending roughly half-a-billion dollars more each year than it's taking in. So district officials say they need to burn through most of this $1.7 billion over the next three years in order to break even. For example, this year, the district set aside $892 million to cover future expenses — including anticipated salary increases.

On this point, it's worth noting: some of this $1.7 billion the district set aside is earmarked for "future salary increases" — essentially, for raises for the teachers and the other unions with which LAUSD negotiated contracts this year.

In a letter to UTLA earlier this month, Beutner essentially dangled a deal for teachers at a 6 percent salary increase — which Beutner argues is roughly equivalent to what other unions received.

UTLA disputes the math behind his offer and found the letter "deceitful." Still, the district appears to be trying to inject at least a portion of that $1.7 billion directly into negotiations.

LAUSD OFFICIALS SAY THE DISTRICT IS CURRENTLY RUNNING A DEFICIT. IS THAT TRUE?

Again, LAUSD is spending more than it's taking in, officials say.

LAUSD's budget is balanced this school year. It's balanced next year. But there is a question mark over whether the district can end the third year, 2020-21, in the black.

The district plans to ensure a balanced budget if it nips and tucks about $260 million out of its budget over the next three years — to say nothing of setting aside some of that $1.7 billion.

Without those steps, LAUSD projects its budget would sink into the red over the next three years, weighed down by flat state funding and rising costs for pensions. Making matters worse: enrollment in LAUSD is declining — and enrollment basically determines the district's funding.

But the union points out the district's budget forecasts have been off — drastically off — before.

For example, if the forecasts in the district's July 2016 budget held true, the district would — best case — end this year more than $400 million in the hole. (It won't.)

LAUSD budget officials say these projections haven't come true, because the district usually is able to make cuts to prevent the most drastic scenarios before they play out.

Still, the repeating cycle of warnings that haven't come true fuels UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl's belief that, as he said in a recent interview, "there's money there to make movement on these items. We need it for the kids."

SO WHAT DO THE TEACHERS WANT THAT WON'T COST AS MUCH?

Even if money were no object, the contract talks still might be hung up on other issues. For example:

  • Magnet schools: LAUSD leaders see schools of choice, such as magnet schools, as a way to lure families back into the district. But sometimes these conversions are used to force teachers to reapply for their own jobs at their schools — a practice union leadership thinks is unfair. So the union proposes every time a school wants to convert into a magnet, 60 percent of the UTLA members would have to vote to agree. The district says this is a non-starter, saying it would "effectively limit the number of new magnet schools" in LAUSD.
  • Evaluation: LAUSD uses a three-tiered evaluation scale for its teachers, and most rank as either "effective" or "meeting expectations." The district wants to add a fourth tier to recognize "highly-effective" teachers. Teachers unions have objected to this for years, seeing it as a gateway to "merit pay" — that is, linking teacher pay with their evaluation rating.
  • Standardized testing: Under a UTLA proposal, teachers would be required to give only the standardized tests required under state or federal law — but that's it. The union proposes to give teachers "unilateral professional discretion" over which additional standardized tests to use. The district won't entertain the proposal.

The union has made other proposals, too. To name a few: to empower Local School Leadership Councils with more control over spending on their campus, to impose new requirements on the charter school co-location process and to implement ethnic studies courses in all schools by 2020-21.

PLEASE TELL ME THIS WILL ALL END SOON.

I wouldn't get your hopes up. Negotiations began in Jan. 2017. At first, there was very little movement in the ensuing year and a half at the bargaining table. But now, events are accelerating, not slowing down:

  • July 2: UTLA declares an "impasse" in its contract talks. That means the union believed no further un-mediated talks with the district would result in a deal. The declaration gets the state's Public Employment Relations Board involved — and it's the first of a series of steps UTLA must take legally before it can strike.
  • July 10: At the state labor board's urging, UTLA walks back its impasse declaration and agrees to return for one final scheduled bargaining session with LAUSD in two weeks.
  • July 24: UTLA lays what it calls its "last, best and final" offer on the table. Two days later, LAUSD's top negotiator says accepting those proposals would "bankrupt" the district.
  • July 27: UTLA declares impasse — again. This time, the Public Employee Relations Board will agree with the union, and begins the process of setting up dates for the two sides to meet with a state-appointed mediator.
  • July 30: UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl announces teachers will hold strike authorization votes at the end of August.
  • Aug. 15: Caputo-Pearl — frustrated that the two sides will have to wait for more than a month to meet with a mediator — meets privately with LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner. The two sides emerge with vastly different accounts of the meeting. Afterward, Beutner releases a letter that seems to outline the parameters of a possible deal. Caputo-Pearl said they never discussed a possible deal in the meeting and called the letter "deceitful."
  • Aug. 23: UTLA kicks off its week-long strike authorization vote. The voting ends Thursday, Aug. 30.
  • Aug. 24: UTLA filed an "unfair labor practice" complaint with the state's Public Employment Relations Commission. They objected to LAUSD's unusually fast reply to a request by some news outfit called KPCC/LAist to see UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl's discipline file. It wasn't the request they found galling so much as the timeline for the district's response: UTLA says it has been waiting for, in some cases, up to four months for the district to hand over documents and information relevant to their contract talks.
  • Aug. 28: LAUSD countered with an unfair labor practice charge of its own. The district said UTLA had not seriously engaged during almost a year-and-a-half of talks on a new contract — and even comes close to saying the teachers union has been hoping talks end with a strike from the beginning. The district said UTLA "calculated to time a strike for a period where it can inflict maximum punishment on children and parents so that UTLA may extract financial concessions from the district." LAUSD complains about UTLA's decision to hold a strike vote before the state's mediation process could even begin.
  • Aug. 31: UTLA announces the results of its strike vote and — to almost no one's suprise — the results are overwhelming. Of the roughly 81 percent of UTLA members casting ballots, 98 percent favored authorizing union leadership to call a strike.

In other words: everyone's mad at everyone, and the two sides don't meet with a state mediator for the first time until September 27.

That date is important because UTLA cannot legally strike until completing the state's full dispute resolution process, including mediation. That could take weeks, which means it's unlikely the union will be able to launch a full-blown strike on Oct. 3, a date mentioned in an L.A. Times op-ed. (It likely was the earliest date teachers were told to be ready to strike.)

So this dispute between LAUSD and more than 30,000 of its employees could take weeks or months to resolve.

UPDATES & CORRECTIONS

Correction, Aug. 30: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said LAUSD was spending "half-a-million" dollars more each year than it was taking in. The district is currently spending roughly $500 million more each year than it's taking in. KPCC/LAist regrets the error.

Update & Clarification, Sept. 4: The post was updated with results of the union's strike authorization vote. Additionally, a reference to enhancing the power of "local school site councils" was updated to clarify that UTLA wishes to give more power to "Local School Leadership Councils."


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