With teachers vowing to strike on Jan. 10 if a new contract is not reached with the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials are taking steps to keep schools open, including hiring hundreds of nonunion substitute teachers to fill in for educators walking picket lines.

Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker, said the district, which is the country’s second largest, with more than 640,000 students, was hiring about 400 substitutes to keep schools open. The Los Angeles Daily News quoted him as saying:

“We have hired substitutes, we have made plans as to alternate curriculums for days that there is a strike but our goal is to make sure  schools are safe and open so kids continue to learn. My concern first and foremost is the safety and well being of  our students.”

United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing some 34,000 educators (including substitutes) in the district, bashed the move, releasing a statement that says in part:

It is outrageously irresponsible for Supt. Austin Beutner to force this strike when the district holds $1.9 billion in reserves and it is even more irresponsible to think that 400 substitutes can educate more than 600,000 students.  We believe that it is illegal for the district to hire people outside our bargaining unit to teach in LAUSD classrooms.

The district and the union have been negotiating for a new contract for more than 1½ years. UTLA has accused the district of claiming to have fewer resources than it really has and is demanding, among other things, a 6.5 percent pay raise; more money for schools; a boost in the number of counselors, nurses, social workers and librarians; a reduction in standardized testing; and an expansion of community schools. Beutner’s administration says the district cannot afford many of the concessions and warns that the district could be insolvent in a few years.

A fact-finding panel tasked with trying to find a resolution to the contract impasse agreed with both sides on some points, saying that teachers do deserve a raise but that the district can afford only the 6 percent being offered. A report, written by the one neutral member of the panel (the other two represented the union and the district), said that the district should dip into its reserves to cut class size and hire more nurses, counselors and other needed staff.

The union is calling for a cap on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, but a charter cap is not part of the bargaining demands being made by the union. Charter schools, which enroll about 1 in 5 students in the Los Angeles district, are not required to follow all of the rules that traditional public schools are, and some leaders of traditional public school districts say charters drain their resources.

The state’s newly elected education secretary, Tony Thurmond, has said he wants to spend more money on traditional schools and stop the expansion of California’s scandal-ridden charter sector until funding and transparency issues are resolved.

District schools are set to reopen from the holiday break on Jan. 7, with the union calling for a strike to begin on Jan. 10 if there is no deal.

If teachers in Los Angeles strike, it would be the first major 2019 strike by educators, following a series of them in mostly Republican-led states in 2018. And if the teachers in Los Angeles do strike, such labor unrest may not stay in Los Angeles. CALMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism outlet, said in a new piece:

"We're going to send a message, not just to the people who don't want to pass Prop. 13 [reforms] in two years, but the people in Sacramento and the people who we helped get elected, like Gov. Gavin Newsom, to say we need to invest more in K-12 education," said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Demetrio’s comments came at a Dec. 15 gathering in Oakland of teachers from unions in San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley, Alameda, Santa Cruz, Oakland and Elk Grove. West Contra Costa Unified is also the home district of incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who campaigned, with union backing, on a promise to push for increased state funding for public schools.