Starved of resources and respect

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UTLA officers
UTLA officers at 2018 Leadership Conference

The time to act is now

By Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA President

 

Alex delivered the following State of the Union speech at the UTLA Leadership Conference in July.

Sisters and brothers, I’m going to start with what happened this week in bargaining. LAUSD claimed in early July that we were not at impasse. They said come back to the table because they had something substantial to offer. This past Tuesday, guess what, they offered no movement on the vast majority of our proposals, and they doubled down on insulting us, with a paltry salary offer of 2% on the scale and a 2% one-time bonus. This after offering administrators 3% on the scale, contingent on additional PD, and a 3% one-time bonus that could become permanent depending on the budget. Frankly, we find both of these unacceptable—but it’s particularly galling that the district believes that we, frontline educators, are at the bottom of the barrel. We’re across the street from Beaudry, so I want them to hear you. Are we going to accept that kind of disrespect? Your UTLA Board of Directors said “no way” and voted unanimously yesterday to declare impasse again.

Let’s be clear on some punchlines from the outset. The LAUSD school board that the billionaires put a record-setting $13 million into last year has hired a friend of Eli Broad, an investment banker, as superintendent. Even with our collective victory of forcing Ref Rodriguez to resign, the driving forces on the school board are moving a privatization agenda. These forces believe that the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling attacking unions will help them. Meanwhile, the state of California—supposedly the pride and model for the Democratic Party—is at 43 out of the 50 states in per-pupil funding. But, now hear this punchline. Amidst that troubling picture, educators across the country are rising up like we have never seen before—let’s hear it for West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Colorado.

Sisters and brothers, we are at a defining moment. The questions before us are: Will we accept overloaded class sizes? Will we accept lies from those who see LAUSD as a business to be down-sized rather than a civic institution to protect? Will we accept over-testing, privatization, and an insulting salary offer? Will we accept disrespect? Let’s switch this up and get some “yesses.” Will we, instead, sisters and brothers, demand that they give our kids a chance and stop starving our public schools? Will we rise to the occasion to take action in this defining moment?

It is within this context that we see multimillionaire superintendent Austin Beutner applying what he knows—not education principles, but investment banking and private equity principles. He is attempting to “wind down” this public school district, in the same way he made his millions—consolidating, cutting, selling off, whip-sawing, and profiting, while at the same time hiding the ball. In a speech on July 19, reported in the Daily News, Beutner reiterated that he refuses to talk about the annual $600 million impact of charter school growth on our neighborhood public schools, saying it is irrelevant and a distraction. Beutner followed this by saying something chilling: If we don’t bend to his will and make changes on his terms, he expects there will be no more public school district in Los Angeles by the year 2021.

Now, let’s be clear. This district has $1.7 billion in reserves and can respond productively to our demands. This district can take action to attract families and increase enrollment, while slowing the privatization drain. And, this district can use its unique leverage at the state level to fight for more funding. Yet, Beutner refuses. In the same way that Donald Trump’s cabinet members like Betsy DeVos and the disgraced Scott Pruitt attack the very institutions they are supposed to protect, Austin Beutner, the superintendent of public schools, attacks public schools. This is shameful.

The austerity agenda

As it is for many teachers, my former students ground me. I was recently talking to Channing Martinez, who was in my ninth-grade class at Crenshaw High School in 2001. He’s a community organizer now and works near the school. He was reflecting on how much it has changed over these past 17 years. Charters have siphoned enrollment, cherry-picking the most proficient students with the most active parents. The percentage of special needs students has increased, with less resources to serve them. School safety and discipline issues have increased. Cuts have created school cleanliness issues, and a charter co-location sapped resources. The district shifted academies and changed the names of magnets, but academic results continue to suffer. The principal was ineffective and took advantage of a demoralized staff to make unilateral decisions.

As this happened, career educators, friends and mentors of mine, revered by generations of students, left the school, were displaced because of declining enrollment, or retired, often more defeated than celebrated. I think about my friends who have hung tough at Crenshaw—Maynard Brown, a later career teacher; Sara Wellington, a mid-career teacher—and I think about great folks just coming into the profession, like Maricela Lopez, a fantastic community organizer, now a new teacher, who could perhaps one day teach at Crenshaw. Crenshaw is a microcosm of the district: As Crenshaw’s enrollment went from more than 3,000 to under 1,000, the district’s went from over 800,000 to 500,000. It is criminal that career public servants, like Maynard and Sara, and those ready to become public servants, like Maricela, spend more time worrying about existential questions than about lesson plans. Questions like, Will Crenshaw remain open? Will I be displaced? Will I have enough basic resources to teach my classes? Will my healthcare survive? Will I have a job? Channing said this: “Crenshaw’s where I became who I am. It hurts me to see it like this.”

Crenshaw High, and all of our schools, are being starved. Starved of resources and starved of respect. Crenshaw was never perfect, and it has been shaped by the institutional racism and classism that affect so much of our society. But, even with its problems, when I was at Crenshaw in 2001, there was a collective sense of possibility, an inspired group of people there making a difference.

That has waned. Many of you have seen the same at your schools over these 17 years. That starvation and decline is exactly what Austin Beutner and his school board allies want to accelerate districtwide. They want to end public education as we know it. Their agenda is austerity. Instead of reversing decades of disinvestment, instead of funding our schools, they want to break our schools down and privatize them.

Just in the last year, they have loosened regulations on charter schools and gotten rid of the inspector general, whose job it is to investigate charter schools. They have ignored conflicts of interest and brought staff and lawyers onto the district payroll from the California Charter Schools Association, which regularly sues that very same district on behalf of the charter industry. They had Reed Hastings and other corporate Democrat billionaires pay Ref Rodriguez’s legal expenses to keep him on the board long enough to hire Beutner.

Fresh attacks on healthcare

Beutner hired a Broad Academy graduate as chief of staff, someone who oversaw testing in Louisiana and reinforced the 92% privatization of New Orleans schools. Though the vast majority of displaced teachers become so because of charter expansion, not because of quality of teaching, Board Vice President Nick Melvoin said he wants to get rid of all displaced teachers. District staff has made presentations to the board calling for class sizes of 50. And Austin Beutner produced a report that said that educators are 17% overpaid, and that our healthcare is 44% too generous. The report attacks the salary point system, argues for higher special education class sizes, and pushes for us to do 90 additional hours of PD and longer work days with no additional pay. Check out the flyer on your table about this report.

And, Austin Beutner, the investment banker who has never taught, but who has a history of attacking pensions, is using bargaining to attack our healthcare. In the recent administrators’ agreement and in the SEIU Local 99 agreement, modest salary bumps went alongside increasing the required years of service to qualify for retiree healthcare. With the two police unions in the district, Beutner has been even more aggressive, offering slightly higher salary increases in exchange for those unions promising to leave the Health Benefits Committee. The HBC is the union-run entity, including all unions, that has been crucial to saving healthcare over the last decades. Beutner is trying to bribe other unions to start the slow-walk toward giving up healthcare, and, make no mistake, it is all focused on leveraging us, his biggest adversary. The good news is this: Fresh off our healthcare victory earlier this year, we are optimistic that our LAUSD labor coalition will stand and fight against Beutner.

Let’s be clear, Austin Beutner, Nick Melvoin, and Eli Broad’s goal to destroy public education is ambitious. In turn, our program for investment in and revitalization of public education must be ambitious. We must have as our overall institutional goal nothing less than saving the district and public education. We limit our demands and actions at our own risk. If we win steps forward on salary, for example, but do nothing about the charter drain on district finances and the high class sizes that drive parents away, those steps forward will be temporary illusions as the district continues to hemorrhage. In other words, higher pay doesn’t matter much if you’re laid off. Higher pay doesn’t matter much if it is just to backfill a concession on healthcare.

We are proud of the breadth and aggression of our bargaining package and campaign. To deal with a 27% cost of living increase in the last 10 years and the oncoming teacher shortage, we demand a fair wage increase. So that the district can no longer unilaterally raise class sizes, we demand getting rid of Article 18, Section 1.5 of the contract. To deal with atrocious ratios in California like 945 students to one counselor, we demand additional nurses, counselors, school psychologists, social workers, librarians, and more.

It’s absurd that a TK through sixth-grade student in LAUSD faces over 100 standardized tests that interrupt instruction and deprofessionalize teaching. We demand more educator discretion over testing. California, as the richest state in the nation, sits at 43rd out of the 50 states in per-pupil funding. We demand that LAUSD do more than use rhetoric—we demand the district wage a war for more state funding. We know that additional staffing is crucial to improving school safety and discipline, but we need more than that. We demand more input from educators in shaping and implementing school safety and discipline plans. And, if the coming years replicate the 287% growth in unregulated charter schools that has happened over the last 10 years, the district will crumble. We demand regulations on charter growth and on charter co-location.

Many of these demands are crucial to increasing enrollment. There’s more to that. We must be building a concrete vision of what we want our schools to look and be like so that we have a concrete response to the privatizers. This is why we are demanding the district fund a Community School transformation process, with increasing numbers of schools involved every year. Community School transformations are successful across the country, yielding schools that are driven by an improvement process that is bottom-up, that have well-funded parent engagement, wrap-around services for families, and that have broadened curriculum that includes arts, music, ethnic studies, career/tech, adult education, and more.

Community Schools are part of our Common Good demands. Our students will do better, our families will be more connected, and we will increase enrollment by winning demands like these: a district immigrant defense fund; more green space on campuses; increasing affordable housing through the district using its unique leverage; and really improving school safety instead of using so-called random searches that racially profile students, interrupt instruction, and increase anxiety. These and other demands are essential to student success, building coalitions, and strengthening the public school district.

Time for a strike vote

Sisters and brothers, the district’s austerity and privatization program has collided with our investment and revitalization program, and we are at a bargaining impasse. Our great bargaining team has negotiated for 19 sessions, 130 hours, and 16 months. Over that time, we have done leafleting, school-site picketing, Big Red Tuesdays, rallies at the school board, coalition actions with parents, faculty meeting boycotts, regional rallies, delegations to elected officials, earned and paid media, and a 12,000-member demonstration downtown.

While we will continue to pursue an agreement at every juncture, it is clear that we are coming closer and closer to having exhausted all of our options short of a strike. The strike is a weapon we don’t take lightly, as we sit with the presidents who led the 1970 and 1989 strikes. We don’t take it lightly, as so many of our co-workers were on the line in ’89 and won. We don’t take it lightly, as youth, parent, and community partners are by our sides in this fight. We don’t take it lightly, in how much power a strike can have, and that we would need to wield responsibly, as we’ve seen done so movingly in West Virginia and other places. And, we don’t take it lightly, in the amount of organizational preparation, focus, and discipline we must have.

That said, our members are outraged over a corporate superintendent, a corrupt school board, a 2% insult, and the rejection of our proposals by the district. It is because of this that all across this city we will take strike votes during the week of August 23. Are you ready? At this conference, we double down on the discipline we need to carry these votes out. We, as chapter leaders at this defining moment, must lead our co-workers in an overwhelming “yes” vote. Can we do this?

Prepared to strike if we need to

Sisters and brothers, we are ready for this. This past year has given us the foundation for strike votes, and, if the district forces us, it has given us the foundation to powerfully strike. Let’s look at 2017-2018.

After we beat back Eli Broad’s plan to privatize 50% of LAUSD in 2015, he came back for more last August. With the help of allies in Sacramento, we defeated his legislation to create a mega-charter-school in downtown LA. This prepares us to strike if we need to. And, California Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon, crucial to defeating that legislation, will be here with us tomorrow at the PACE reception.

This year, our community partners in Reclaim Our Schools LA grew to over 20 of the premier civil rights and educational justice organizations in the city, and have been a constant presence at the school board. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

As part of the broader resistance to the Trump administration’s policies, we went on offense as Trump’s Supreme Court prepared to rule on the Janus case. We developed the All In recommitment card that would inoculate us against the worst parts of the billionaires’ attempt to undermine unions. And, over only three months, and through thousands of one-on-one conversations, we have recommitment cards from almost 75% of our members. 100% here we come. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

We will have with us tomorrow at the PACE reception a warrior who directly takes on Trump and the Supreme Court every day: U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Having allies like Maxine prepares us to strike if we need to.

Through our recommitment campaign and a summer home visit program, we have cut our number of non-members in half. We are at almost 96% members, the highest we have ever been. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

As tens of thousands of our members recommitted, thousands also signed up to contribute to our political fund, PACE. In the last five months, we have seen a 63% increase in PACE contributors, bringing us to the highest number of contributors in UTLA history. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

And, speaking of politics, we knocked Antonio Villaraigosa out of the governor’s race. After all of the talk about how he would make up ground on Gavin Newsom in LA County, we were a major part of Newsom stomping Villaraigosa by 10 points in LA. I’d dare to say that Mayor Privatizer has reached the end of his political career. Let Villaraigosa hear you on that one, in his Herbalife office! This prepares us to strike if we need to.

Let’s stay on politics for a minute. In the race for state superintendent, we helped Tony Thurmond win LA County. And we’re going to help Tony become the next state superintendent in November.

Let’s do some more politics. Let’s talk about the resignation of Ref Rodriguez. We are proud of the work that our community partners in Reclaim Our Schools LA did to dog him relentlessly over the last months, from rolling hundreds of petitions into the school board on dollies to showing up at every court appearance. And, we’re not stopping. We’ve demanded that all 4-3 votes with Rodriguez as the swing vote be thrown out. We’ve demanded that every source of legal and pro bono support for Rodriguez be revealed. And, sisters and brothers, we have demanded that there be an election to replace Rodriguez as soon as possible—the parents and students of Board District 5 deserve to be represented.

But, let’s be crystal clear about two things. First, winning that seat does not resolve our contract dispute or our battle with Beutner. Beutner came in on a 5-2 vote and has circled the civic elites tightly behind him. Second, getting into the schools, and if need be into the streets, with our strike readiness plan, shaping the narrative in that very public way, is exactly what we need to do to compete in that election. That is exactly the weapon we need against the tens of millions of dollars that will come in from the charter industry. Tying our electoral plan to our contract readiness plan will prepare us to strike if we need to and will prepare us to win that seat.

Let me tell you more. Through contract enforcement, grievances, and legal action, we now have the final victory against John Deasy’s teacher evaluation scheme. We killed TGDC in the 2015 contract, but this year, the courts went further, finding that the district committed an unfair labor practice by implementing TGDC at all. LAUSD must now post this acknowledgement of their illegal action in every school in the city. Deasy’s now the superintendent in Stockton. Let him hear you in Stockton: How do we feel about landing that final punch against John Deasy? Victories like this prepare us to strike if we need to.

Parents have awoken and organized like we’ve never seen before against Proposition 39 charter co-locations. This year, we saw youth join that fight, when Southeast High students walked out of class and sat in to protest a co-location. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

Over the past year, we have increased 50-fold the UTLA social media presence with more followers, shares, and activity than we’ve ever seen before. Red for Ed social media campaigns in Arizona and other places, we’re right here with you. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

Our members and parents have continued to organize themselves to get rid of bad principals. At Wilton Place EEC, through public actions, they not only got a principal removed, not only saved the job of a chapter chair who had been unjustly nonreelected, but they also followed the principal to her new site and are focused on getting her removed from there too. Don’t mess with Early Ed! This prepares us to strike if we need to.

We’ve continued to lead the way on research. Our report called “Whose Schools” documents the shocking racial exclusion that characterizes LA charter school governance. That report has made national waves. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

And, speaking of charter schools, let’s talk about the courageous educators at Alliance charters. After a three-year, $2 million, relentless anti-union campaign by management, these courageous educators filed for union recognition at three schools and were certified by the Public Employee Relations Board. Alliance charter educators, sisters and brothers in our union, please stand up and be recognized. This kind of organizing prepares us to strike if we need to.

Our community partners in Reclaim Our Schools LA have made Community Schools the talk of the town, from demonstrations at the school board, to scores of youth and parent leaders knocking on doors, to the Mayor’s Office, the LA Chamber of Commerce, and university leaders now stating that Community Schools are the future of public education. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

We recently scored a victory that has thrilled our health and human services leaders. Changing the rating-in system for new and recent hires will help fill shortages in critical fields and will put money in the pockets of our members. Victories like this prepare us to strike if we need to.

Last year, we built structures at our sites and tested those structures citywide. We elected chapter chairs at over 800 schools. We built over 400 contract action teams. We gathered 25,000 recommitment cards. And, in one of the busiest times of the school year, we brought over 12,000 members to downtown LA on May 24 and shut it down! How many of you were there? This prepares us to strike if we need to.

We continue our work with the California Alliance for Community Schools, a collaboration of the largest teacher unions in California. Let’s have the presidents and vice presidents from these locals who are here tonight stand—San Diego, Anaheim, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco. As we build our strike preparation, and as Oakland does the same, having declared impasse themselves, these locals see this struggle as all of our struggle. This prepares us to strike if we need to.

It has been one year since we launched our 20 by 20 campaign to reach $20,000 per student by the year 2020. This past year, we built a broad coalition in Sacramento aiming to close the carried interest tax loophole that hedge-funders have jumped through for a decade. We will continue that struggle this year through legislation that would bring $1 billion to public education. And, there’s more. I am thrilled to announce tonight, through work with a broad coalition of community and labor across the state, we have just completed collecting the 850,000 signatures needed to get the Schools and Communities First initiative on the 2020 ballot. This will be the first time in 40 years that we frontally challenge the Prop. 13 corporate commercial property tax loophole that has devastated schools and ossified institutional racism. If we pass it, this is $11 billion to schools and social services. Being in these funding battles, being a part of these coalitions, all of this prepares us to strike if we need to.

And, let’s talk about another victory. LAUSD spent more than a year grinding the axe against our healthcare, and then finally came with a proposal: to cut dependents off our plans, to introduce premium contributions for employees, to open the door to two tiers. We punched back hard, and by the time we had escalated to our regional rallies in November, the district had backed off. We had an agreement by January that protected our healthcare across the board. Now, Austin Beutner is attacking our healthcare from a different angle. Beutner, let us give you a message. We beat you once this year on healthcare, and we will beat you again. This fight prepares us to strike if we need to.

And, finally, sisters and brothers, this year, as part of the leading edge of the national teacher union movement, we have been talking and strategizing with the West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Puerto Rico teachers who captivated the nation with their strike wave. Through the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, we are receiving solidarity commitments to our fight from New York, Chicago, St. Paul, Boston, and more. We have serious backup, and this prepares us to strike if we need to.

Reflecting the promise of public education

Sisters and brothers, the time to act is now. Austin Beutner is attacking our healthcare right now. He’s simultaneously trying to weaken our healthcare bargaining for 2020. He refuses to fight for the district, implements austerity and privatization, and threatens that we will not have a district at all by 2021. The time to act is now. The district sits on a $1.7 billion reserve, the privatizers siphon from our schools, the state starves our students, and we’re all being starved of the respect we deserve. The time to act is now. We have the unique leverage of our full contract campaign this year. To save public education, our students, our schools, our jobs—the time to act is now.

Sisters and brothers, if you are committed to strike if the district forces us to, stand up right now! Sisters and brothers stay standing and put a fist in the air if you will join me, your board of directors, and your area steering committee in signing this commitment form tomorrow to build a strong “Yes” vote in the strike vote.

Let me hear you! You are a beautiful antidote to the privatizers, a beautiful antidote to Janus, a beautiful reflection of the promise of public education. Let’s take this energy, this focus, this discipline and win the Schools LA Students Deserve. You are educators, you are great, stand with pride, and let’s move forward together!