LOS ANGELES (AP) — A skeleton crew of substitutes welcomed students to Los Angeles schools Monday as tens of thousands of teachers walked off the job for the first time in three decades, but parents wondered how much their kids were learning in the nation’s second-largest school district.
Educators and parents wearing ponchos created a sea of umbrellas as they packed streets in pouring rain to march from City Hall to district headquarters, pressing for higher pay and smaller class sizes that school officials say could bankrupt the system with 640,000 students. The rain-slicked streets filled with protesters contributed to heavy downtown traffic, but there were no major incidents or arrests.
Teachers aim to build on the momentum of successful strikes nationwide that began last year in conservative states and have moved to the more union-friendly West Coast. But unlike those strikes that shut down many schools and forced parents to find other care for their kids, all 1,240 K-12 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District were open.
For kids who went to school, bus service was normal, breakfast and lunches were served, and “students are safe and learning,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said at a press conference.
The district has hired hundreds of substitutes to replace educators and staff members who left for picket lines, a move that the teachers union has called irresponsible.
Kathleen Whitehead said she grew “more and more irritated” while getting text updates from her 14-year-old daughter Casey. The teen and her classmates at Reseda High School were “being shuffled from one large auditorium to the next” in large groups so they could be looked after by fewer adults.
“It’s semi-organized chaos,” Whitehead said.
The ninth-grader told her mom that some kids huddled around a TV showing Michelle Obama’s recent appearance on “Carpool Karaoke,” a segment from “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” while others browsed the internet for busy-work assignments.
Other parents took their kids to the picket line.
Peter Spruyt said he and his fifth-grade daughter “got wet and yelled our voices raw” as they joined teachers protesting for additional staffing at Micheltorena Elementary School. He said he understands parents who sent their kids to school.
“A lot of people have no choice. They have to work, and child care is unaffordable,” Spruyt said.
Neighbors whose kids attended classes told him “not much instruction is happening. They’re just making sure the kids aren’t getting in trouble.”
Whitehead said her daughter is “absolutely not going” to school Tuesday.
“She might come to work with me so I can make her study her French,” said Whitehead, a real estate agent.
Parents at some schools said attendance appeared to be low Monday, but official numbers were not immediately available.
Months of talks between United Teachers Los Angeles, which has 35,000 members, and the district have ended without a deal. No new negotiations were scheduled. Beutner said the district is committed to resolving the contract negotiation as soon as possible and urged the union to resume bargaining.
“We made our last proposal to UTLA on Friday which was rejected. They walked away from bargaining,” the superintendent said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom urged the sides to resume negotiations and end the strike that was “disrupting the lives of too many kids and their families.”
The union rejected the district’s latest offer to hire nearly 1,200 teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians and reduce class sizes by two students. It also included a previously proposed 6 percent raise over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants a 6.5 percent hike at the start of a two-year contract.
Teachers earn between $44,000 and $86,000 a year depending on their education and experience, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The district says the average teacher salary is $75,000, which reflects an older, more experienced workforce.
Teachers want significantly smaller class sizes, which routinely top 30 students, and more staff members for the district’s campuses in Los Angeles and all or parts of 31 smaller cities, plus several unincorporated areas.
Leighton Milton, a 21-year district veteran who teaches at Hollywood High, said he’s had as many as 55 students in one class and now has one with 42.
“It’s really hard to connect and to deal with 50 people,” he said.
The district says the demands run up against an expected half-billion-dollar deficit this budget year and billions that are obligated for pension payments and health coverage for retired teachers.
The union argues that the district is hoarding reserves of $1.8 billion that could be used to fund the pay and staffing hikes. The district said that money is needed to cover retiree benefits and other expenses.
The governor submitted a budget proposal last week that offers money to help pay down the district’s pension debt and provide substantial new funding for special education and early education.
Teachers are trying to tap into the “Red4Ed” movement that began last year and won big raises even in states with “right to work” laws that limit the ability to strike. They started in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona and moved to Colorado and Washington state.
Associated Press reporters Amanda Lee Myers, Krysta Fauria and John Antczak contributed to this report.
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