Trouble with Los Angeles teachers

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 17th of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up: teachers on strike in Los Angeles.

The LA Unified School District is the nation’s second largest, with more than 600,000 students. United Teachers Los Angeles is the union that represent more than 30,000 teachers and other district employees. It started planning the walkout last year after talks with the district stalled out.

REICHARD: Here to tell us more about what galvanized the walkout is WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones. Good morning, Leigh!

LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: Good morning, Mary.

REICHARD: Let’s start with the stalled negotiations. What does the teachers’ union want and what offer has the district put on the table?

JONES: Well, let’s start with the union president Alex Caputo-Pearl explaining the union’s position in his own words. Now, this happened during a rally on the first day of the walkout, which was Monday.

CAPUTO-PEARL: Do we need class size reduction? [yeah!] Need more nurses? Do we need more nurses? [yeah!] In counselors, in librarians, in early education, bilingual education, adult education, special education, and a fair wage for educators.

JONES: Okay, so that was Caputo-Pearl. Let’s break it down in terms of specifics. The union wants a 6.5 percent pay raise retroactive to the 2017 school year. And it also wants more money for support staff—and you heard him there list some of them—nurses, librarians, and counselors. And it wants the district to hire more teachers, which would help lower class sizes.

So, the district has offered a 3 percent retroactive raise and another 3 percent going forward. And it also said it would hire nearly 1,200 new teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians and cap class sizes between 32 and 39 students.

The district says that that additional staffing would reduce class sizes by two students. But the union declared that offer inadequate and has so far refused to go back to the negotiating table.

REICHARD: So what’s been the district’s position?

JONES: Well, Superintendent Austin Beutner said the union’s demands would bankrupt the district. You might have seen that quote in some of the coverage about this strike, but there’s not been a lot of explanation as to why. So, here it is: it’s healthcare benefits. 

Since the late 1960s the district has given employees, retirees, and their dependents free lifetime health benefits. That’s really remarkable. They pay nothing for medical, dental, and vision benefits. No premiums, nothing. And teachers make an average base salary of just over $70,000, with an average of more than $14,000 in health benefits.

So this year, you can imagine, it’s very expensive. All those benefits will cost the district $314 million. 

All of that is a problem now, but it’s going to be a much bigger problem in 12 years, when estimates say the district will be spending half its budget on healthcare and pensions.

REICHARD: Well, that certainly sounds like the district is in serious financial trouble.

JONES: Yeah, it is. So much so that it’s facing a state takeover. And that’s, again, not something that you hear a lot about in the coverage of these strikes. But the district is already spending more than it’s taking in and it expects to be insolvent by 2021. Right now it’s making up the difference with reserves but those are running out.

That’s been a sticking point—those reserves—with union representatives. Because they say that the district is hoarding money. The reserve is at nearly $2 billion. It’s about $1.8 billion, but by 2021, it will have dropped to just $1.5 million. So, last year, the county and state education officials basically gave the district three choices: raise more money, cut spending, or do both. Obviously, increasing spending by hiring more staffing and giving big raises was not part of that plan.

REICHARD: And I assume that demographics are playing a role here.

JONES: They are. The district is losing thousands of students a year. Some of that’s due to having fewer kids in the district whether through families moving out or just having fewer kids. But it’s also due to an increase in charter schools. And that’s been another sticking point for the teachers’ union.

The district has so far authorized 249 independent charter schools within its boundaries. And they serve nearly 119,000 students. So, the union blames charters for taking money from public schools. And the superintendent on the other side is very charter-friendly and is widely seen as wanting to expand the network of charters in LA Unified.

REICHARD: Ok. So now the strike is, what, in its fourth day. Is there any end in sight?

JONES: Well, not so far. And negotiations have been going on now for two years, so it’s hard to see how all of this could be resolved quickly.

REICHARD: So, meanwhile kids are just sitting at home?

JONES: Well, some are, but some are still coming to school. So parents are trying to figure out what to do with their kids and whether to send them to school where they’re in sort of big group settings and doing kind of what amounts to busywork. But a lot of parents don’t have the luxury of just keeping their kids at home. Eight out of 10 students in LA Unified live in poverty, and so they have to go to school because parents can’t just not work.

REICHARD: Leigh Jones is WORLD Radio’s news editor. Thanks for this report, Leigh.

JONES: You’re welcome, Mary.

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel) Teachers and students carry signs and picket in front of Hamilton High School in Los Angeles during a city wide teacher strike on Wed. Jan. 16, 2019.16 in Los Angeles. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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