The community needs the UTLA to win its fight

October 3, 2018

Héctor A. Rivera reports on a forum in East Los Angeles where parents and teachers talked about their shared interest in winning a good contract for public school teachers.

PARENTS, STUDENTS, teachers and union organizers met in a packed room at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory in East Los Angeles on September 27 for a forum organized by Eastside Padres Contra La Privatización (Eastside Parents Against Privatization) in support of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) contract campaign.

While children played on the hallways and sat on the floor to color their sketchbooks, the meeting of 120 parents discussed the current contract fight and the struggle against the privatization of public schools.

Meanwhile, out on the sidewalk, student-teachers and educators held a speak out to share their grievances and one story after another reported underfunding, understaffing and a myriad of insufficiencies throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — the nation’s second largest school district.

A buzz of energy at the event was palpable, and everyone volunteered to organize and sign up to speak to parents and community members. This energy is needed since negotiations have stalled after 17 months of bad faith moves by the LAUSD and schools Superintendent (and former investment banker) Austin Beutner.

The community comes out in support of United Teachers Los Angeles
The community comes out in support of United Teachers Los Angeles (Gillian Russom | SW)

The #RedForEd strike wave has attracted widespread support across the country, and a strike vote passed the UTLA in August by an overwhelming 98 percent vote. But the district is still stonewalling teachers, as well as the students and families who support them, with an insulting bargaining proposal.

Two days before the forum in East LA, Beutner released the proposal to the LA times before showing it to the union, a clear bad faith tactic designed to set the terms of public discussion on the district’s terms.

The disrespectful Beutner proposal offers a 3 percent raise, plus 3 percent increase for this academic year that’s contingent on district finances and “extra work.” It also opens an attack on health care benefits during retirement, effectively rolling back everyone’s health coverage at a time of rising health care costs. The proposal also makes it harder for educators to earn salary points to earn pay advancements — effectively refusing to pay for professional development.

In addition, the Beutner proposal falls far short of meeting one of the union’s central demands to reduce class sizes, instead pledging only to lower them in 10 percent of schools — but refuses to change Section 1.5 of the previous contract, which allows the district to increase class sizes at any time thus “rendering his proposal useless,” as the UTLA points out.

CALIFORNIA IS home to some of the world’s richest corporations and wealthiest people, but the state has consistently ranked among the worst 10 states in per-pupil spending, leaving its schools chronically understaffed and undersupplied.

Currently LAUSD has 1 nurse for every 1,224 students and 1 counselor to 945 students. The UTLA is demanding funding for more nurses and counselors, as well as $5 million invested in Community Schools in high-need areas.

María Gutíerrez, a parent from Theodore Roosevelt High School said at the Boyle Heights forum that schools needed tutors “because teachers can’t do everything and there is very little space. Teachers need backup while they are teaching in case students have questions and they need help.”

Teachers and staff have been working for years for salaries that have not nearly kept up with the state’s 27 percent cost of living increase over the last decade. Rising housing costs have caused a teacher shortage that hurts students. LAUSD must give teachers a fair wage to show them respect for their work and to attract talented educators to serve in our public schools, unless officials like Beutner don’t think the city’s public school children deserve that.

LAUSD has the money for all this and more — the district currently sits on $1.7 billion in reserves. Furthermore, every year the district gives charter schools more than $600 million, draining valuable resources from the district as a whole. Rather than pitting students and families in a competition for a few charters, the UTLA is demanding fully funding the public school system so that all students have the same opportunities.

Instead the Beutner proposal offers a cheap, low quality education with huge class sizes and more than 100 standardized tests through sixth grade — at a stage where children need play time and engaging curriculum.

In addition to demanding that the LAUSD use its budget reserves to meet teacher demands, we also need to fight in the long term to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations like Apple, Google and Chevron to fund our schools.

ACROSS THE country, teachers contract battles have become key struggles in the fight to defend public education, one of the last public services available in many working-class communities — especially marginalized communities in places like Los Angeles, where homelessness and displacement through gentrification are common.

For immigrant students like myself, public schools have been a key place for us to learn English and adapt to life in the U.S., which comes with so many challenges for outsiders.

At the community forum, Jenisha Hasselberger, an academic counselor at the Metropolitan Skills Center, stated that there should be nine counselors at her adult education center to help students with career-technical education, academics for high school diploma and English as a Second Language (ESL) — but at the moment she is the only one on her entire campus.

For adult education students — many of whom return to school after dropping out — counseling “is a vital aspect of their education” said Hasselberger, because “there’s a reason they dropped out in the first place, there’s a reason that they’re coming to our adult education facility.” These students need a lot of motivation and information to finish their high school credits as well as career advice to make better decisions.

With the current levels of understaffing, Hasselberger said that she is constantly pulled by the administrative demands of her occupation instead of being able to meet with the students. With more tutors that workload could be shared and students could receive more one-on-one support.

The concerns of Hasselberger and Gutíerrez are only two of the countless needs and demands that the new contract must meet. The district has wanted to run the nation’s second largest school district on the cheap and on the back of workers. This situation is untenable.

This was widely understood at the community forum in Boyle Heights. Children, parents, educators, staff and student-teachers all left the forum with a determination to continue raising support for the strike in the community. After the forum, the crowd took their protest to an intersection on César Chávez Blvd, where cars and low-riders honked, movie crews filming gave thumbs up and firefighters played the sirens for the rally.

These types of forums will be important to continue raising support, and to rally the city of Los Angeles to our side. This must be a concerted effort by parents, teachers, students, unions and community organizations to make sure teachers know we have their back.

Old-school organizational strategies like tabling, door-to-door campaigns, phone calls and in-person conversations will be crucial part of winning the community to support the strike, as will some of the more modern features of the #RedForEd strikes such as Facebook groups and grassroots social media campaigns.

Through all these tactics and more, we need to build solidarity across the vast working-class population of Los Angeles with the UTLA as they move forward towards a strike that’s urgently needed to take on the city’s wealthy elite.

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