LOS ANGELES -- A school board meeting turned into a display of civil disobedience Tuesday as about 50 educators refused to leave, creating a brief standoff with police, who refused to make any arrests in the presence of media.
The members of ACORN and United Teachers Los Angeles -- all wearing bright red shirts -- entered the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education meeting on Tuesday afternoon, sat down and began chanting.
Police said the protesters were staging an illegal occupation of a public building. The district said no arrests would occur as long as members of media were in building.
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UTLA President A.J. Duffy approached the speakers' lectern and told the board, "You know why we're here. You know I'm not leaving this rostrum. You know I'm going to keep talking."
As he spoke several teachers sat on the floor in front of the board and held up signs saying "Students lose when we lose teachers, No layoffs" as the crowd began chanting.
Board President Monica Garcia repeatedly asked Duffy to sit down, but he kept speaking. The microphone was turned off, but Duffy continued to speak and the chanting continued. Garcia then announced that the "disturbance has interrupted our meeting to the point where the orderly conduct of this meeting is not feasible."
The board took a short recess, then reconvened in a smaller meeting room, with the proceedings broadcast on television sets in the district's headquarters. Media and the public were allowed into the room on a rotating basis.
At 4 p.m., the protesters left. No arrests were made.
The board agreed to authorize layoff warning notices for 8,846 employees as the district fights to reduce a $718 million budget deficit for the coming school year.
Superintendent Ramon Cortines told the board that the authorization does not mean notices will be sent to that many people. He is expected to return to the board in about a month to discuss more specific numbers.
"This is a precautionary notice. It is not an actual notice," Cortines said.
By law, the district must notify employees by Sunday that they could lose their jobs at the end of the district's fiscal year.
Cortines said he believed he and other district officials would have a better understanding of the district's financial picture by the end of July, and layoff warnings likely would not be sent to as many people.
"I believe we will be able to right the district long before July and that many of our people based on early retirement, based on knowing better the picture from the state, based on the use of stimulus funds," that the district won't be sending as many layoff warnings, he said.
The board authorized layoff warnings for:
- 3,477 non-permanent elementary and secondary teachers;
- 1,996 permanent elementary teachers;
- 498 counselors and advisers; and
- 2,875 administrators and supervisors.
Board members Julie Korenstein and Richard Vladovic voted against sending the notices to non-permanent teachers, counselors and advisers. Korenstein also opposed the notices for permanent teachers, while Vladovic recused himself from the vote due to a potential conflict of interest.
"I want everyone to know that impacting the classroom is our last option," Garcia said in a prepared opening statement. "For the first time in decades, we are cutting the central office to the bone. Local districts will be cut by one-half, but we have ... worked too hard to let the reforms go. We have worked too hard showing that LAUSD kids can succeed if you give their teachers and parents support and room to grow. That is why our goal is to protect the classroom and save reforms at all cost."
Officials with UTLA have blasted the district for any possible cuts among the teaching ranks, saying the district should cut administrative and bureaucratic fat out of the budget before firing teachers or making reductions that would affect the classroom.
Gregg Solkovits, UTLA vice president, said sending layoff warnings -- whether they lead to actual job losses are not -- can be traumatic for the recipients.
"Once again, I understand what a difficult time it is for you guys, but I would ask you to delay as long as you can issuing any kind of notices," he said. "Because once you're a teacher and you get notice, where's your mind going to be the rest of the year? 'Oh my God, how am I going to pay my bills, how am I going to pay my mortgage?' We've got tests that we're very concerned about test scores for, and even the most professional person when thinking they're gone June 30th, it's going to be a lot harder for them to focus on their teaching jobs."
Solkovits suggested that many of the notices may be unnecessary because of money the district will receive from the federal economic stimulus package, but Cortines said the district has to be cautious in the way it uses those funds.
"Stimulus money is temporary," he said. "I do believe that we can use the stimulus money, but we need to use it carefully. If we do not, 10 years from now we will be right back in the same place again."
Contract talks between UTLA and the district are continuing. The union's membership is expected to cast ballots in a strike-authorization vote March 20-25.