Teachers occupy the LAUSD

Sarah Knopp reports from Los Angeles on teachers who are bringing the Occupy movement to their schools--and fighting for their students and their jobs.

Participants in Occupy LAUSD on the marchParticipants in Occupy LAUSD on the march

ON OCTOBER 18, about 500 teachers and supporters from Occupy LA marched from the occupied City Hall to the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where we began the "Occupy LAUSD" encampment.

Our demands are: 1) Tax the 1 percent to fully fund our schools; 2) Keep our schools public--by the 99 percent, for the 99 percent; and 3) Democratic community-based schools, not corporate Wall Street reform.

The rally featured chants like "Tax the rich, fund our schools," "The banks got paid off, teachers got laid off," and "They say privatize, we say organize!" and attracted massive media attention. Teachers have maintained an encampment of a half dozen tents ever since.

But true to form, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy went on the attack against teachers:

Occupy LAUSD is both misinformed and contrary to the spirit and intent of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy LA and the other laudable movements for economic justice that have sprung up around the country and the world over the last month. It is an insult for these protesters to equate a school district that during the past four years has experienced a $2 billion loss of dollars in state and federal funding with policies and institutions that have systematically hurt the poor and middle class.

What else to read

For information about the struggle led by teachers to dramatize the crisis of LA schools, visit the Occupy LAUSD website.

It's quite ironic that our boss, who makes a quarter of a million dollars a year and has a personal chauffeur, would feel justified in speaking for the Occupy movement about anything, much less a march organized by teachers. I guess that's the kind of training one gets, though, in the Eli Broad leadership institute.

In fact, LAUSD and Deasy are refusing to implement California Assembly Bill 114, which says that districts should maintain the same staffing levels this year as last and hire back teachers who received RIF (reduction in force) notices. Deasy is choosing not to follow state law and instead to keep hundreds of schools understaffed.

Jose Lara, the chair of the Central Area of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and a protest organizer, said:

It is time the LAUSD School Board listens to us, the 99 percent. We demand full funding of our schools, an end to layoffs that disrupt our school communities, and an end to public school giveaways. It is time we hire back our teachers, counselors, nurses, office workers and all others who play an instrumental role in educating our students.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

UTLA activists, inspired by the Occupy movement, began organizing the encampment on short notice to put pressure on the school board for its bimonthly public meeting. On the first night of the occupation, 20 police cars blocked the street in front of the encampment and told teachers that we had to move our tents. We negotiated to keep our tents, which numbered less than 10, on the corners away from building entrances.

Receiving news that we were being harassed by the police, about 100 activists from Occupy LA rushed over to the LAUSD site--on foot and fixie bikes--to bolster our numbers and help us stand strong against any attempt to move us.

The second night of the occupation, the UTLA House of Representatives voted to support both Occupy LA and Occupy LAUSD, making our action official union policy. The third night of the occupation, delegates from the California Teachers Association (CTA) State Council, meeting in LA starting October 21, began showing up to support the occupation.

East Los Angeles elementary teacher Gloria Martinez said, "To me, Occupy LAUSD signifies hope. It means getting the message to the public about what our students deserve."

Kelly Flores, a teacher in South Central Los Angeles, camped out with her entire family. She explained:

It's unacceptable that children go to any school in our district and have to suffer the loss of time sitting in a class of 45-plus students and not learn because of it, or that they cannot use the restroom because the sole janitor cannot clean them, or because there is no paper, or they cannot see the nurse, or check out a book because the positions have been cut.

It is absolutely unconscionable that our own school district continues to lay off teachers despite the district surplus--and despite a privatization agenda that continues to pay for testing at a grand scale, private contractors who make $300,000-plus a year and continual cuts from the bottom, instead of the top.

It is obvious that the agenda is to not provide education to the poor, but rather to guarantee a "slave"-like workforce of uneducated people. This is why I camped out! I am sick of it! My students ask me, "Why do they open schools, but not staff them?" "Why can't we use the restroom?" "Why is the library closed?"

On the fifth and final day of the occupation, 300 delegates from the CTA--teachers from across the state--marched from their convention at a nearby hotel to join the protest, chanting, "We are, we teach, the 99 percent!" Occupy LAUSD activists, taking down their tents, announced a campaign to "Occupy Our Schools."