The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protesters shut down meeting of Los Angeles school board amid strike threat

The Los Angeles skyline. (Nick Ut/AP)

Protesters turned up at a meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Education and shut down debate at a time when a teacher strike in the nation’s second-largest public school system seems increasingly likely.

More than 50 adults and students went to the meeting late Monday and shouted at board members in support of teachers and their union, which has been negotiating for more than 1½ years with the Los Angeles Unified School District and its new superintendent, Austin Beutner, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The action underscored the tensions running through the district, with the strike threat and a still-secret plan by Beutner to restructure the district. The problems in Los Angeles reflect an insufficiency of state funding that has left public school systems in dire straits across California. As an editorial in the student-run Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley said:

We Californians can be pretty smug about holding true to our progressive values in the face of attacks from the president. We tout, among other things, our sanctuary cities, our commitment to environmental regulation and the taxation and regulation of legal cannabis — and candidates for statewide office are falling over themselves to declare the resistance they will lead to Trump’s vision for America.
But there is one area in which we are well out of step with the rest of the nation — and not in a good way. By almost every measure, California ranks in the bottom fifth of states in spending for K-12 public education. We are 45th in percentage of taxable income spent on education, 41st in per-pupil funding, 45th in pupil-teacher ratios and 48th in pupil-staff ratios.

The United Teachers Los Angeles union has set forth contract demands, including a 6.5 percent pay raise; more money for schools; a boost in the number of counselors, nurses, social workers and librarians; more accountability for charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated); a reduction in standardized testing; and an expansion of community schools. Teachers said that if no agreement is reached, they will strike next month.

Beutner’s administration has said it cannot afford the union’s demands and warns that the district has a structural deficit that could leave it insolvent in a few years. Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles assert that the district has more resources than it is saying. The L.A. Times story quoted a teacher saying as much:

“The more involved I become, the more I become aware of what is happening and the things that are not happening,” said Ruby Gordillo,  who was accompanied by her daughter Alandra, a fifth-grader at 10th Street Elementary in Pico-Union. “Our schools are very misleading in the way they answer questions. They give us answers in a way that makes me believe they don’t have interest in our community.”

At Monday’s board meeting, members had been talking for three hours before starting a debate on competing proposals to raise more revenue, the Times said. That debate never took place because of the demonstrators.

The protest underscores how tense these days are for the school system of more than 640,000 students, with the strike threat and uncertainty over the direction in which Beutner intends to take the district.

Beutner, a former investment banker, is working on a major plan to restructure the district into 32 “networks,” a proposal that includes slashing the resources of the central office, according to an L.A. Times story. Critics have charged that he is seeking to bust the teachers union and privatize the district by moving toward the “portfolio” model, which turns traditional school districts into collections of individuals schools that are run separately.

The district goes on holiday recess Monday and doesn’t reopen until Jan. 7 — unless, that is, the teachers decide to call their strike then.