LOS ANGELES (FOX 11) - Thousands of teachers staffed picket lines in the rain Monday morning at the beginning of the first teachers strike targeting the Los Angeles Unified School District in 30 years, while administrators vowed to keep schools open using substitutes and district employees with teaching credentials.
"We are here for the kids, to try to get the district to understand that our classes are too large," one teacher said, as he held an umbrella to ward off rain. "We need more help in the classrooms, we need more help in the offices. We need nurses paid for at every school, and we had no choice. We don't want to be out here; I'd rather be in my classroom. But that's where it's gotten, and we'll be out here as long as we need to be."
At a 7:30 a.m. news conference, United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl addressed fellow union members, parents and students at John Marshall High School, 3939 Tracy St., where picketing began about the same time.
"Here we are on a rainy day in the richest country in the world, in the richest state in the country, in a state that's blue as it can be -- and in a city rife with millionaires -- where teachers have to go on strike to get the basics for our students," Caputo-Pearl said.
"Here we are in a fight for the soul of public education," Caputo- Pearl said. "The question is: do we starve our public neighborhood schools so that they (become) privatized, or do we re-invest in our public neighborhood schools for our students and for a thriving city?"
At a news conference on Sunday, UTLA Secretary and negotiations team co-chair Ilene Inouye placed the blame for the impasse squarely on LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner.
Before the work stoppage began, LAUSD officials expressed disappointment with UTLA's strike plans and reminded parents that the district's schools will remain open. State preschool sites will be closed, and early education centers will be open for students with special needs.
"We are extremely disappointed that UTLA has rejected @LASchools revised offer without proposing any counter offer," District officials said on Friday after making their last offer. "UTLA has refused to continue contract negotiations. ... We implore UTLA to reconsider. A strike will harm the students, families and communities we serve, and we have a responsibility to resolve the situation without a strike."
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janice Hahn announced Sunday that she will picket today with striking UTLA members at Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes.
A rally and march were scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday starting at Grand Park on Spring Street in front of City Hall, heading downtown to LAUSD headquarters, 333 South Beaudry Ave. More picketing by teachers, parents and students is set for between 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. in front of Marianna Avenue Elementary School, 4215 Gleason St. union officials said.
The school district estimated the crowd at today's strike in Downtown LA to be upwards of 20,000, but the teacher's union believe that number to be about 50,000. Los Angeles Police Department did not want to comment on the crowd estimates.
UTLA and District negotiators met behind closed doors for about four hours Friday afternoon, but made no progress in contract talks.
In the midst of the session, Beutner held a news conference to announce the District's latest contract offer. Union officials criticized the move, saying Beutner gave the proposal to the media before presenting it to the UTLA negotiating team and never actually attended the bargaining session.
Beutner said the revised offer was crafted after Gov. Gavin Newsom released a proposed 2019-20 budget increasing public education spending. The District's contract proposal is a roughly $24 million increase from the its previous offer, with $10 million expected to come from the county and the rest anticipated through the state budget process, Beutner said.
The proposal would add 1,200 new teachers for the upcoming school year, which is an increase from the District's previous offer of 1,000, and would help reduce and cap class sizes, Beutner said, adding the District likely won't be able to offer much more, given the LAUSD's financial constraints.
"This represents the best we can do, recognizing that it is our obligation to provide as much resources as possible to support out students in each and every one of our schools," Beutner said.
According to Beutner, the funds would cap middle and high school English/math classes at 39 students, cap grades four through six at 35 students and maintain all other existing class sizes. He also said the funds would provide library services at every middle school, nursing services at all elementary schools five days a week and add an academic counselor at every comprehensive high school.
UTLA bargaining chair Arlene Inouye said the union was "insulted" by the District's "woefully inadequate" offer, saying the new hires in the proposal would only be budgeted for one year.
Reducing class sizes has been one of UTLA's demands, although disagreements about a pay raise, the staffing level of nurses, counselors and librarians, and other issues have also been areas of conflict in more than two years of contract negotiations. Underlying the talks is the issue of privately operated charter schools -- which are governed by state law. The union has decried Charters for bleeding away students and money from the District, and has accused Beutner of working to vastly expand the number of Charter schools.
Union officials have said that adding 1,000 teachers, or even 1,200 teachers, would have a minimal impact in a District with more than 1,000 campuses.
The budget Newsom released Thursday would spend a record $80.7 billion on kindergarten through 12th grade schools and community colleges, up from the roughly $78 billion included in the previous spending plan.
The LAUSD has offered teachers a 6 percent raise spread over the first two years of a three-year contract while UTLA wants a 6.5 percent raise that would take effect all at once and a year sooner, and it claims the District's proposed salary hike would be contingent on benefit cuts for future union members.
UTLA also says it wants "fully staffed" schools with more nurses, librarians and counselors added to the payrolls, along with pledges to reduce class sizes.
The union has repeatedly pointed to what it calls a $1.8 billion District reserve fund, claiming there is more than enough money for widespread hiring of teachers and school staff.
But Beutner said the reserve has already been fully earmarked, including for the potential raises for teachers. He argued UTLA's demands would push the District into insolvency and cost around $3 billion.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Office of Education appointed a team of fiscal experts to work with the District to develop a fiscal stabilization plan. The office has the power to take over financial decisions from the LAUSD school board, and threatened late last year that it may do so if the District's finances don't improve.
Beutner said the county's move means it believes LAUSD is on the "precipice" of financial insolvency. But UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl accused Beutner of orchestrating the county's involvement as a political ploy, insisting that the District has not faced a fiscal deficit in five years, and is not facing one now.
As the second largest school District in the nation, the LAUSD covers an area totaling 710 square miles and serves more than 694,000 students at 1,322 schools, although 216 schools are independent charter schools, most of which are staffed with non-union teachers who would not be affected by the strike. The District says about 500,000 students and 1,100 schools will be impacted by the walkout.
About 80 percent of the District's students come from low-income households and qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, and around 25 percent are learning English. The District says it intends to keep all of its schools open in the event of a strike while it also continues to serve around 1 million meals each day.
The District also says it intends to attempt to keep some instruction going for students during strike. Four hundred substitutes have been hired for the task and 2,000 administrators with teaching credentials have been reassigned. However, with more than 25,000 teachers expected to strike and at least 31,000 UTLA members set to walk out, the District is expected in many cases to do no more than supervise students during the day in auditoriums and other large spaces.
The District has established an information hotline for parents at (213) 443-1300 to answer questions about the planned strike and its possible impact.
The city of Los Angeles has established a web site, describing city resources available to students and parents during a strike.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said that while he is encouraging both sides to continue talking to avoid a strike, the city will bolster staffing and resources at city recreation centers, libraries and Family Source Centers in order "to support families with additional options."
CNS contributed to this report.