‘Lock the door and throw away the key’: As strike looms, LAUSD asks Newsom to intercede

Less than a week into Gov. Gavin Newsom’s tenure—and with a massive teachers strike set for Monday—the leader of California’s largest school district on Friday publicly asked the new governor to get involved, officially and personally.

“It’s clear we’re having trouble reaching a resolution,” said Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner. “We’d like the governor to step in, bring our parties together—keep us in a room, lock the door and throw away the key if he has to—so we can reach a resolution to avoid a strike.”

In a text to CALmatters, a spokesman for Newsom said late Friday that “the governor has been engaged in informal conversation with parties on both sides,” and indicated that more formal mediation by the governor was unlikely, at least in the short term. “Having been through strikes like this as a mayor, he is respectful of the process and hopes both sides can come together before Monday.”

The request comes on the heels of a Newsom proposal that the district had hoped would avert the strike, which would affect more than a half-million students and their families.

As part of his $209 billion state budget, the governor on Thursday had recommended that the state pay down $3 billions of public employee pension liability. The plan would, if the Legislature approves it, free tens of millions of operating dollars in the LAUSD budget that are currently committed to teacher pensions. And in fact, after Newsom’s proposal, which includes a record $80.7 billion for K-14 education, the district made a fresh contract offer, which the union rejected.

LAUSD said it expects to net about $40 million from the governor’s budget plan, and the district’s latest offer increased funding to reduce class sizes and hire more nurses, counselors and librarians as a result of the projected boost from the state budget. A separate estimate by the California School Boards Association put the savings at about $50 per student, or about $30 million to $35 million at LA Unified.

But Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said Friday evening that, according to the union’s estimates, the $40 million estimate was low by about $100 million. He said contract negotiations were at an impasse, and added that unless the district put an offer on the table that was “demonstrably different,” teachers on Monday “will be on strike for our students, for our schools and for the future of public education.”

For nearly two years, LAUSD, which educates 621,000 kids, and UTLA have been deadlocked in bitter contract negotiations that have spanned a broad list of grievances from the union: low teacher pay, large classroom sizes, poor working conditions, lack of nurses and counselors and the district’s overall direction, including the expansion there of charter schools.

The district has offered a three year contract with a 6 percent pay raise spread over the first two years; the union wants a 6.5 percent raise retroactive for a third year. But the teachers also area demanding smaller class sizes and the addition of a host of nurses, counselors, librarians and other school employees.

District officials have said that despite a $1.8 billion surplus, meeting the union’s demands would bankrupt the district. UTLA believes the district is lowballing its financial position and that the district could fund their demands if it wanted to.

Aggravating the differences, meanwhile, is a bitter dispute over the growth of charter schools in Los Angeles. The union recently called for a cap on charter schools in the district, saying they drain funding from traditional district schools and have led to the district’s financial decline. They’ve accused Beutner of attempting to “privatize” public education in Los Angeles, a claim the superintendent says is false.

The issue  was thrown into stark relief in California’s gubernatorial election, as charter school advocates pumped millions of dollars during the primary into the campaign of a Newsom rival, former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Newsom, supported by teachers’ unions, prevailed.

“We have a good relationship with the governor and we’ll accept all the help that we can get,” Caputo-Pearl said Friday evening. “That said, it’s very clear that the only thing that may move Austin Beutner is a strike. A strike is a last resort, and we have reached that moment.”

Beutner urged the union to reconsider, saying the district would formally ask Newsom to mediate the negotiations.

“We need his help to resolve this,” Beutner said. “We do not want a strike.”

L.A. Unified officials have increasingly sought to pressure on state leaders in Sacramento to help address the strike, saying that many of the demands and concerns raised by UTLA, such as funding and charter school regulations, are under the purview of the governor and Legislature.

And in fact, the issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

Friday morning, more than a dozen local unions across the state held silent demonstrations on social media in support of Los Angeles and Oakland teachers, according to the California Teachers Association, the state’s teachers union.

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