Whether it’s class size or how much money the district has to spend, after nearly two years of negotiation, the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers union cannot agree on a set of facts on which to base contact talks as Thursday’s strike date nears.
The teachers union initially said it would not return to the negotiating table after a neutral third-party found that the union should accept the district’s salary offer. Since then, the union said it would continue talks with the district on Monday — three days before a potential strike.
The union wants the district to hire more teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians, among other demands, while the superintendent says if he accepted the union’s proposal, the nation’s second-largest school district would immediately become financially insolvent leading to a state takeover.
In separate editorial board meetings, L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner and United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl expressed their frustration with the stalled talks.
“Part of my frustration in this is we are two years in and there’s not an agreement on what the facts are, and that’s disappointing,” Beutner said.
In order for talks to be successful, Caputo-Pearl said the district must make significant changes to its current offer to teachers.
“We’ll have talks to see if we can avoid a strike, but we’re getting prepared because we have been going through this for 20 months” Caputo-Pearl said.
The state-appointed fact-finder who evaluated both the district and the union’s contract proposals noted a mistrust exists among both sides.
In its contract, the union wants to codify that teachers have more say through a shared governance model. But the fact-finder notes it will be difficult to reach a compromise on that and other of the union’s goals.
“This approach to the basic functioning of public education has many positive attributes, but it relies upon a level of trust between labor and management which is not present at this time,” the fact finder, David A. Weinberg, wrote.
Evelyn Aleman, a parent of a 14-year-old who attends Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda, said she and other parents she speaks to want the two sides to collaborate.
“I think the conditions are there for the union to come out a winner in this and to avert the strike,” she said.
While trying to negotiate lower class sizes, the two sides can’t even agree on how to calculate average class size let alone determine what class sizes are throughout the district.
The district, citing data from the state Department of Education, calculates average class size as 25.97, the second-lowest compared to other large districts in the state.
The union says it is disingenuous for the district to calculate average class size since class sizes vary from elementary to middle and high schools. Middle and high school teachers say their classes can have up to 45 students in some cases.
“When UTLA talks about class sizes, we talk about actual class sizes, not a misleading average,” a UTLA spokeswoman said.
Due to time constraints, the fact finder was unable to make a conclusion about this disagreement, but noted the two sides need to reach an agreement.
“The parties should dedicate a few key individuals to immediately work together with shared data to come to common understandings as to how to calculate average class size,” the fact finder wrote.
Once the two sides agree what average class size is, they then have to decide how many new teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians will be hired and how the district would pay for it.
The union wants lower class sizes throughout the district, while the district has offered to spend $30 million to hire more teachers, counselors and nurses at schools where the student population is considered “high needs.”
Another aspect of the class size debate is the provision in the current contract that allows the district to raise caps on class size if the district is facing a financial crisis.
Both the district and the union want to eliminate this section, but it is unclear how they will agree on replacement language.
How much money the district has to spend now
The two sides have finally made some progress by agreeing how much the district has in its reserve fund — more than $1.8 billion. But there they don’t agree on how that money should be spent.
The union argues the district can spend this money on its contract demands to hire more teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians.
“We believe that the district can make very significant progress on all of our proposals in a strategic way with the money they’ve got,” Caputo-Pearl said.
The district says much of the $1.8 billion is already allocated to things like a 6 percent salary increase for all of its employees and money for schools. Officials also say much of the reserve will be used to fill a $500 million structural deficit over the next three years and by then the savings fund will be nearly depleted.
“Their last, best, and final offer made to the district back in July would literally make L.A. Unified insolvent as of now,” Beutner said.
Beutner pointed to a visit by a county and state official who warned the school board that the district’s budget situation is serious. There have also been independent reviews of the district’s finances that have reached similar conclusions.
“We have limits on our financial resources,” Beutner said. “The state has told us that. The county has told us that, repeatedly, and we need to act accordingly.”
UTLA strongly disagrees with the district’s budget projections
The district projects that by 2022, its $1.8 billion in savings will be nearly depleted.
The union argues that for the last several years, the district has projected that three years into the future, its financial situation will be dire and that scenario has never materialized.
“We think there’s little reason to believe district numbers when for the last five years, they projected three years ahead that they’ll be falling off fiscal cliffs and that has never happened,” Caputo-Pearl said.
Did the union agree to a 6 percent raise?
The two sides couldn’t even agree if UTLA accepted the district’s offer of a 6 percent salary increase.
On the day the district released the fact-finding report, Beutner announced the union agreed to the district’s offer of a 6 percent salary increase with 3 percent retroactive to July 1, 2017 and 3 percent retroactive to July 1, 2018. The fact-finder recommended the union accept the district’s offer as did a labor representative on the three-person panel.
But later that day union officials vehemently denied that they had made such an agreement and called Beunter a liar.
UTLA is asking for a 6.5 percent raise retroactive to 2016.
Union officials and teachers say the strike will be a short-term loss for a long-term gain that will benefit students in the long run by having smaller class sizes and more counselors and nurses at schools.
“If we are to strike, and again we’ll be involved in talks even up to the last minute if we have to to try to avoid it, but if we do strike, it would be up to the district how long that is,” Caputo-Pearl said.
The district points out that only the union can authorize a strike and many students will be harmed by the disruption to student learning.
“At some point, UTLA is going to have to fess up to the facts and articulate to all of us what they’re hoping to achieve out of a strike,” Beutner said.
Aleman said her daughter will continue to attend school if there is a strike. She said she wants the district to continue to receive funding because student attendance is tied to state funding for school districts.
Who is bargaining in good faith
The district and the union also disagree on who is bargaining in good faith.
The union argues it is the only party that has made comprehensive bargaining proposals, while the district says the union has not changed many of its proposals since bargaining began and it made its “last, best and final” offer made this summer.
The fact-finder notes the “particularly difficult set of circumstances” in the contract negotiations.
Both sides sat at the bargaining table more than 20 times and completed three mediation sessions, but were only able to reach an agreement on two or three “minor” issues. There remains 20 items left to hash out.
“…there seems to have been almost no progress made on any issue, which normally would be reflected in multiple counter offers being exchanged by each side that reduces the issues between the parties,” the fact-finder wrote.