By Howard Blume
A last-ditch bargaining effort to avert a Los Angeles teachers' strike fell short Monday, although the two sides have agreed to meet again on Wednesday morning, the day before a strike is scheduled to begin.
Whether the strike starts on schedule could depend more, however, on legal maneuvers that will play out on Tuesday.
At issue is whether United Teachers Los Angeles -- in setting the strike for Thursday -- gave the Los Angeles Unified School District a legally required 10-day notice that its members would stop working under the existing contract.
The current contract actually expired at the end of June 2017, but union members continued to work under its provisions as negotiations continued for more than 20 months.
In a twist, it is the union that is going to Los Angeles Superior Court over whether it followed the rules. The union's goal is to preempt the district from going to court on the same issue after a strike begins. Were that to happen, a judge could shut down the strike for several days, killing its momentum and perhaps making union leaders look -- to the public and their members -- inept.
UTLA is expected to argue that it has provided ample notice of its intent to strike. The union publicly announced its Jan. 10 strike date on Dec. 19.
On this matter, however, the district is asserting violation of a legal technicality, regarding a formal notice from the union to the district, that it hopes is enforceable.
As lawyers for each side plotted their moves, bargaining teams were locked in a daylong session, meeting face to face to negotiate for the first time since early October.
Both sides arrived at the meeting with their big guns: Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, and L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner.
But the gathering at district headquarters, west of downtown, looked more like a United Nations conference than a head-to-head negotiating session. At least 30 people were in the room, fairly evenly split between the two sides, according to people who were there.
The two sides caucused in separate rooms during the lunch hour.
Each side brought new proposals but not nearly enough to close the gap. Afterward, each side criticized the other. On some particulars, there wasn't even agreement on what was offered.
In dueling news conferences, however, some details emerged.
The district did not change its wage proposal. It has offered teachers a 6% raise spread over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants a 6.5% raise that would take effect all at once and a year sooner.
District officials say they've added about $75 million to reduce class sizes and hire new staff. This is on top of $30 million in their previous offer.
The extra money would allow for a librarian to be hired for every middle school and about one additional academic counselor for every high school. The extra counseling would help, but counselors still are likely to juggle several hundred students. Nursing services would be doubled in elementary schools -- but that means only that the district would pay to have a nurse present at each school two days a week instead of one. Schools have been using discretionary money to pay for additional days, and that likely would continue.
The teachers union also represents librarians, nurses and counselors.
With the additional district money, more than 700 teaching positions would be added to reduce the size of classes. That's a significant increase, but the vast scale of the nation's second-largest school district would dilute the impact.
Maximum class sizes in grades four to six would drop from 36 to 35, the district said. Maximums in high school would drop from 42 to about 39. Schools with the greatest needs would see larger reductions -- of about four students per class.
Caputo-Pearl contradicted the district's figures, asserting that the proposal somehow would actually increase class sizes. He also pointed out that the new spending commitment was for one year.
"We don't need a full-time nurse for just one year," he said. "We don't think there was a lot of progress made today."
UTLA has pressed for "fully staffed" campuses, framing its activism as a fight for the future of public education.
On its side, the union removed a demand to give teachers more control over standardized testing and budget decisions at schools. The union also dropped its demand for a say in when the district starts a new magnet program. Caputo-Pearl said he hoped to take up those issues in the future.
District negotiators did not give the union much credit for the concessions. They said such topics had never been proper subjects for contract negotiations.
The district's new offer might suggest that it had been holding back money. But officials insisted this was not the case, that finding the money required trade-offs. Discretionary funds for schools, for example, would decrease overall, they said.
Some of the funding would come from money set aside, under state law, for students targeted for extra help: those from low-income families, those who are learning English and those in foster care. The money would still benefit those students, but would be spent on priorities favored by UTLA, district officials said.
Both leaders stuck to their messages. Caputo-Pearl said the union would strike to improve students' educations. Beutner said a strike would harm students and families.
"We understand that a strike puts students and families in the middle of this disagreement, which is the last place we should put them," Beutner said.
The superintendent has said that some of the union's proposals, while worthy, would immediately push the school district into insolvency.
Monday marked the first day back for district schools.after winter break.
On Tuesday, the school board is scheduled to meet. One item on the agenda is a proposal to make it easier for parents to volunteer on campus. That effort already was under way before a strike became imminent, but having more parents on campus could help schools manage in the absence of teachers union members.
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