Downsize or Reinvest?

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Alex Caputo-Pearl with UTLA members from King Middle School

Downsize or reinvest?

By Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA President

Over the last month with the strike authorization vote, our members took important steps toward being strike ready, in case we have to walk. We continue our determination to reach an agreement short of a strike if we can—but, if we need to strike to protect and expand public education, we are now more prepared to do so.

In an even more intense way than usual, I have been crisscrossing the city meeting with members and parents. At schools everywhere, we have moved on from the authorization vote to the next two crucial tasks:

• Ensuring 100% sign-on among UTLA members to the “We Will Strike If We Have To” strike commitment form.

• Ensuring outreach is occurring to have parents sign on to the Parent Support Form.

But, before we get to those, let’s reflect for a moment on the strike authorization vote.

In an era in which we get used to 15% voter turnout in city council elections and 50% voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections, an astounding 83% of our members—almost 28,000—voted in our strike authorization. An overwhelming 98% were “yes.”

In an era in which unions are under existential attack with the Janus Supreme Court decision, with many unions losing members, UTLA has reached its highest member percentage ever. We are approaching 97% membership, and climbing.

These overwhelming numbers are matched with energy and passion in our schools.

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On a recent Friday at lunchtime, not even a “red Tuesday,” chapter chair Juan Perez and his entire staff at Nimitz Middle School in Southeast LA showed up to my visit in red and were fired up throughout.

On that same Friday, in an unlikely after-school meeting at Michelle Obama Elementary near Panorama City after a long week, chapter chair Edith Janec, vice chair Alexandra Jacobi, and almost their entire staff showed up for a packed and energetic meeting.

Parents and community organizations are getting ready as well. Albert Ramirez, an organizer with LA Alliance for a New Economy, is pounding the pavement in San Pedro with parents and members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, building a parent forum. Fifteen miles up the 110 freeway in South LA, LAUSD parent and neighborhood council leader Kahllid Al-Alim is collecting organizational sign-ons from groups that are joining the campaign. And, another 20 miles over the hill in Granada Hills, chapter chair Aphrodite Antoniou at Frost Middle School is working with her co-workers on a parent engagement plan at their school.

The energy is palpable and contagious.

Alex Caputo-Pearl with UTLA members from Nimitz Middle School (click to enlarge)

Ready for a reason

Members and parents are in high gear because the struggle over public education in LA has reached its most decisive moment in decades. It is exemplified by one question. What is the one reason that a privatizer-backed school board would choose a multi-millionaire investment banker, with no education experience, as superintendent? The answer: to downsize the public school district. Investment bankers make their money by taking over entities, cutting them, laying people off, consolidating, repackaging, and selling them off.

That is the unambiguous plan of Austin Beutner and his billionaire backers—to make cuts that hurt district students and benefit corporate charter schools and start toward cutting healthcare, closing schools, and issuing layoffs.

It is outrageous to see it unfolding. After 17 months of bargaining, Beutner delayed mediation by an unprecedented 56 days—this delay to September 27 is a slap in the face. That kind of delay might not seem like much when you are sitting on the 24th floor of Beaudry with a $350,000 salary, but it stings when you are a student in an overcrowded classroom, a parent struggling to ensure your child gets to see the counselor, or an educator buying her own school supplies.

Simultaneously, Beutner has refused for months to respond to our public records requests on the district budget, yet duplicitously offers in the media to let us “audit the district’s books.” We’re taking him up on that. He attempts to intimidate our members with a memo to principals stating something that is patently wrong, illegal, and reflective of anti-union animus: the assertion that educators cannot discuss labor issues on school grounds with parents. We can and we will.

To top it off, Beutner uses his 56-day respite to hire Latham and Watkins, the firm that represents the charter industry; Mercury Public Relations, the firm that represented the City of Flint in the tainted water case and that has run Walmart’s anti-union campaigns; and the firm of Cami Anderson, the former superintendent of Newark, New Jersey, who was run out of town by parents for her failed privatization schemes.

Beutner’s agenda couldn’t be more clear.

 

The antidote to downsizing: Reinvestment

The antidote to the downsizing/privatizing agenda is our set of bargaining proposals to reinvest in our public district schools and reestablish basic respect for students and educators.

• Give a fair pay increase, to recruit and retain educators in the midst of a shortage.

• Remove Section 1.5 from the class-size article so that the district can no longer unilaterally break through class-size caps and averages. Making this change would improve student learning conditions and educator working conditions, demand more classroom space for district schools thereby cutting against charter co-location, and place a high floor on the number of educators needed, therefore cutting against Beutner’s plan for layoffs.

• Improve school safety through hiring additional nurses, counselors, librarians, and other health and human services professionals.

• Push for LAUSD to use its substantial political weight, rather than only its rhetoric, in the fight in Sacramento to increase per-pupil spending, to lift California out of its atrocious 43rd spot among the 50 states in school funding.

• Give educators discretion over what non-federal- and non-state-mandated standardized tests to use in our classrooms, thereby protecting instructional time and educator professionalism, while creating space for arts, music, ethnic studies, and more.

• Improve working conditions for adult education, early education, and substitute teachers, along with increased investment in bilingual ed.

• Place commonsense regulation on charter growth and reasonable accountabilities on charters. If the more than 280% growth of corporate charters in the last 10 years is duplicated in the next 10 years, we will face massive cuts to public district schools, layoffs, school closures, and cuts to healthcare.

• Invest in a vision for our public district schools—the Community Schools model—which supports school communities to develop assets/needs assessments and strategic plans to build wrap-around services, broadened curriculum, deep and systematic parent engagement, restorative practices, and collaborative leadership.

It is this holistic program that will recruit and retain families and students in district schools, that will stabilize and increase enrollment, that will build a thriving public education system that appeals to parents and is good for students, and that sustains well-paid educators with good healthcare.

 

There is money

Money is there

Austin Beutner was brought in as superintendent with one objective: to downsize the public school district. No matter what the circumstances, he will continue to argue that there is no money, because reinvestment would run counter to his main objective.

But, let’s look at the facts—facts that are more broadly known in the public every day.

The district’s reserve is even higher than expected, $1.863 billion, which is the highest percentage in reserve for large urban school districts in California and more than 25 times the percentage required by the state.

Annually, the district overprojects, sometimes to the tune of more than $300 million, the amount of money it spends on books and supplies—and then hoards the difference.

Multimillionaire Austin Beutner makes $350,000 annually as superintendent, the school board members just accepted a 174% pay increase, and Beutner has hired a new raft of consultants (and he refuses to give information on how much they cost, from which fund they are paid, and so on).

The district has the money to make a solid reinvestment plan, based on our program above, while simultaneously building the growing movement initiated by UTLA and Reclaim Our Schools LA for 20 by 20, or $20,000 per pupil in state funding by the year 2020. Even the privatizers are now part of the call on Sacramento to increase per-pupil funding immediately. And, we took huge steps toward 20 by 20 in August, when we submitted, with our state-wide coalition, 860,000 signatures to qualify the Schools and Communities First funding initiative for the 2020 ballot.

 

If we need to strike, it must be 100% of us

The law regarding contract bargaining is, unfortunately, designed to advantage employers, string things out, allow for delays, and cut against the organized momentum of unions. We must remain disciplined, resolved, and organized throughout mediation and fact-finding, in the event that we cannot reach an agreement and must strike.

Quote by Alex Caputo-Pearl

Amidst this flawed process and his delays that flout the law, Austin Beutner will continue to cynically attempt to make this struggle about salary alone. He does this intentionally. If we take the bait, he frames us as selfish and only concerned about salary. If we take the bait, he gives us a pay increase, but continues undeterred in his downsizing plan—continuing charter expansion while draining enrollment (because he has avoided having to implement our holistic program above), instituting a mass layoff, and moving toward healthcare cuts. A pay increase doesn’t do much for an educator if that educator is laid off the next year, or if the increase is used to backfill increased healthcare costs.

We will continue attempting to reach an agreement. But, if we have to strike, it must be all of us— from probationary to permanent to soon-to-be-retired to district intern to TFA to university intern. Members of all of these stripes in UTLA in 1989, in Chicago in 2012, and in Arizona this year struck without retaliation and with financial gain, not financial loss. There is strength in numbers, period.

Our two next steps that every member must be involved in are:

• Ensuring that every single member at your school or worksite signs the “We Will Strike If We Have To” public strike commitment petition. This is how we build concrete site-based and city-wide resolve and unity.

• Ensuring that as many parents as possible at your school site sign the Parent Support Form, to stay in contact with developments in the campaign and to get more deeply involved.

All around us, we see support growing. At a block party in South LA, a music festival near downtown, and my daughter’s Girl Scout meeting in Mid-City, the refrain I heard from parents was the same: What the teachers are asking for makes sense … I support a strike if you have to do it … and what can I do to help?

Even the LA Times letters to the editor section is full of supporters. A recently published letter read, “If [Beutner] cares as much about ‘the kids’ as he claims to publicly, then he needs to put his considerable money where his mouth is and start talking seriously and stop trying to pretend UTLA is the one refusing to negotiate in good faith.”

Support is growing in this defining moment, and you are the key to growing it even more. Keep up your fantastic work with students every day, keep your belief in a truly public education system, and escalate our actions for a fair contract with pride!