Teachers Protest After Stalled Negotiations

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Teachers in the nation's second-largest school district are in an escalating rift with Los Angeles Unified officials over higher wages, smaller class sizes and evaluations as contract negotiations have stalled after more than six months of bargaining.

Union leaders have declared an impasse and thousands of teachers are expected to demonstrate at a rally on Thursday. While still several steps away, United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said teachers are prepared to strike if necessary.

"We've been for so long without a contract, we've been for so long without restoration of a lot of things after the recession and our students and families have been through so much that we're unwilling to reach an agreement that doesn't include something around those three areas," Caputo-Pearl said, referring to the union's focus on work conditions, learning environment and teacher salaries.

United Teachers Los Angeles is demanding an 8.5 percent pay raise — a salary hike interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines said the Los Angeles Unified School District cannot afford without instituting layoffs in "catastrophic numbers."

"I respect the teachers' point of view, but I want them to know that LAUSD has been in a negative financial situation for several years," Cortines said after a recent protest. "We are in recovery mode from the Great Recession."

With the declaration of an impasse, the two sides will begin work with a mediator in March; if they are still unable to reach a resolution, a fact-finding panel will convene. After that point, the union would consider whether to strike.

The last major urban district to strike was Chicago Public Schools in 2012. Teachers walked off the job for seven days, leaving some 350,000 students out of class, in a dispute focused largely on pay and tying test scores to teacher evaluations. The strike highlighted divisions between reformers and union leaders — using student performance on tests to evaluate teachers has been a key bone of contention.

In contrast, the Los Angeles contract dispute has focused less on reform and mostly on issues like salaries, class size, and increasing the number of counselors, nurses and librarians per student. The union says Los Angeles teachers have not received a pay raise or cost of living adjustment in nearly eight years in a city where the median home value is nearly $500,000.

Los Angeles Unified argues that the proposed 5 percent increase is on par with other districts across the state. Under the district's proposal, starting salaries would rise to $50,000 and $26 million would go toward reducing class sizes.

A recent National Council on Teacher Quality report found Los Angeles teachers ranked 30th out of 125 districts across the country in lifetime earnings, but their standing fell to 94th when cost of living was taken into account. In adjusted dollars, top performing teachers in Pittsburgh earn the highest maximum salary — $106,440; Newark teachers ranked the lowest at $38,462. For Los Angeles teachers, the maximum adjusted salary was $62,296.

"It puts them in the bottom half, for sure, of the districts we looked at," said Nancy Waymack, NCTQ's managing director for district policy.

Complicating matters is an incomplete picture of the district's finances. Union leaders point to the governor's proposed 8 percent public school funding increase and $59 million in unspent Common Core funding as additional revenue sources that could be used to help fund their demands. But Cortines has said the district is projecting a $160 million deficit for next year and that programs are already being cut.

Bill Lucia, former executive director of the state Board of Education and president of EdVoice, said declining enrollment and California's new school funding law prioritizing schools with the highest concentration of low-income, English learner and foster care students has made it more difficult for districts to project future funding and how much should be spent on teacher salaries.

"That's certainly a reasonable question that any party should ask," he said. "What do the numbers really look like?"

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