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Welcome but complicated — Mayor Garcetti, Gov. Newsom and the pressure to end the LAUSD teacher strike

Taylor Swaak | January 18, 2019

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Mayor Eric Garcetti visits a recreation center on the first day of the teacher strike. He has promoted to students that recreation centers and other facilities have been open to them during the strike. But LAUSD has urged students to be in school. (Credit: Mayor Eric Garcetti/Twitter)

*Updated Jan. 18

With pressure building to end the Los Angeles teacher strike, Mayor Eric Garcetti is now mediating contract negotiations between L.A. Unified and its union — a move education pundits say is welcome but possibly complicated by his prior disconnect and his actions this week backing educators.

Education observers say Garcetti, elected in 2013 with United Teachers Los Angeles’s support, has been largely absent from the public education sphere and from the nearly two years of fruitless contract negotiations. This leaves him without a “tremendous amount of history or credibility” when it comes to engaging with L.A. Unified leaders, Ben Austin, executive director of the advocacy group Kids Coalition, told LA School Report.

The mayor has also undercut the district’s claims of being in dire financial straits while praising the strike as “electrifying” — which some education watchers chalk up to political pressure from seeing other Democratic politicians, including high-profile national figures, chiming in this week to support striking teachers. Several of those heavyweights have already declared 2020 presidential runs, a field Garcetti is said to be looking to join.

Though the mayor has no actual power over the contract negotiations, observers like Austin say he should be using his bully pulpit to support his constituents, namely students and parents. Nationwide calls also have arisen for Gavin Newsom, the state’s new governor of one week, to backstop Garcetti. Newsom has reportedly been in ongoing talks with both sides and faces the specter of more strikes from other financially strapped districts around the state. On Friday, a few hundred teachers in Oakland held an unauthorized walkout to jolt stalled negotiations there.

• Read more: ‘Painful truth’: 9 numbers haunting LAUSD as strike continues

Pressure is mounting for a solution as the L.A. strike exacts sizable financial tolls on the district — a net $75 million as of Friday afternoon from student absences — and on teachers, as well as ongoing educational losses for district students, who have now cumulatively missed a million and a half instructional hours. Attendance plummeted sharply Thursday, with only about 84,000 of the district’s 486,000 enrolled students coming to school.

Add to that the principals union urging the district to close the schools over fears about their own safety — the district refused — and sympathy strikes by service workers this week. On Friday, their union, SEIU Local 99, announced those strikes will expand when school resumes Tuesday if there is no deal, with more than 600 workers walking out at 24 schools. That could shut down all services there, from food to maintenance to bus transportation.

Garcetti met with  Superintendent Austin Beutner and UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl at City Hall on Thursday as talks resumed for the first time in nearly a week. The mayor was joined by the new state superintendent, Tony Thurmond. Negotiators for both sides, along with the mayor’s office, then met for about 12 hours. Talks are expected to last through the three-day holiday weekend, and both sides have said they will remain at the table until a deal is reached.

But the union will continue its strike until then.

‘That’s what leadership is’

Observers say Garcetti has made a concerted effort to stay out of education and L.A. Unified since he became mayor.

This serves as a stark contrast to previous mayors, such as Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa, Garcetti’s immediate predecessor. Riordan actively backed reform-minded school board candidates, and before becoming mayor he had been a founding member of LEARN, a school reform effort that called for system-wide decentralization of L.A. Unified. Villaraigosa had tried unsuccessfully to bring the school district under mayoral control — then created a network to try to improve the most underperforming district schools, called the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

“[Garcetti’s] predecessors have historically rolled up their sleeves and taken responsibility for the schools because public education is a core component of any great city,” Austin said. “That has been the role [Garcetti’s] not just shied away from, but I think almost shunned.”

The mayor’s office disputed these observations, pointing out that he has played an outsized role in student education by jumpstarting Los Angeles College Promise, expanding L.A.’s BEST afterschool program and launching the city’s 16 FamilySource “College Corners,” where peer mentors provide college planning and application assistance to students and their parents.

A Garcetti spokeswoman said by email Friday that the mayor has consistently supported students and “will continue to have his office facilitate negotiations” to get kids back in classrooms.

“Mayor Garcetti believes that there is more that unites than separates both negotiating parties, and that is ensuring the safety and opportunity to succeed for each and every student in Los Angeles. He believes that our children deserve smaller classes, more support staff, and community schools and he believes we must maintain the fiscal stability of our school district.”

Some statements made by the mayor in the past week, onlookers say, suggest a lack of in-depth understanding of the school district’s fiscal turmoil and its relationship with UTLA.

L.A. Unified will likely have to take “at least a hop of faith” and commit more funds to secure a deal, Garcetti said at a Monday news conference. Beutner responded indirectly Tuesday, saying, “This isn’t about faith and hope, this is about the reality, unfortunately, of the limits that we have.” The district is facing billions in long-term debt, rising health care and pension costs and declining enrollment.

Garcetti also stated that the two sides “are not talking very far away from each other— an optimistic take on nearly two years of heated disputes largely centered on money, class sizes and charter school restrictions. Caputo-Pearl himself said Thursday morning it would be unrealistic to expect any results on the first day of negotiations given years of contention.

“There’s probably some fact” to the two sides not being miles apart, “but to what degree?” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles.

“He may know something that we don’t,” he said of Garcetti.

Regardless of any prior level of engagement, the mayor has a responsibility to intervene when there’s a controversy affecting nearly half a million students and their families, said Michael Trujillo, former campaign consultant for Villaraigosa. And that’s what he’s done.

“When kids aren’t getting their instructional hours, when kids aren’t getting two hot meals a day, when parents have to figure out other means to get their child to childcare — that is a big impact on everyday people’s lives. And as a mayor you should be involved,” Trujillo said. “That’s what leadership is. It’s using your bully pulpit to get in the middle.”

The district and union this week have embraced the mayor’s involvement. An L.A. Unified statement on Thursday thanked Garcetti “for arranging these discussions.”

Garcetti stepping in as a mediator doesn’t mean he’s neutral though, Austin noted. Some of the mayor’s public statements and social media posts in the past week have appeared to back the union’s strike efforts. He’s publicized alternate school options like recreation centers, posted a picture of himself having lunch with striking teachers and tweeted that he’s “awed by [teachers’] courage to stand strong for excellent schools.”

Austin said rather than praising teachers, Garcetti should provide public assurance that he’s focused on students, a group both the union and L.A. Unified say they’re fighting for. He added that the mayor could resurface topics — such as teacher quality and increased accountability on all schools, not just charters — that are not in the contract negotiations and are now buried by what has become a politicized fight over salary, class size and charter caps.

Garcetti engaging in these talks “as an agent” of special interests wouldn’t “be productive, or, frankly, statesman-like,” Austin said. “But if the mayor wants to engage as the mayor of all residents in his city … and engage on behalf of the children of Los Angeles, who don’t have a seat at this table, then I think that type of engagement [is] welcome on all sides.”

While UTLA did back Garcetti for mayor in 2013, Regalado, the Cal State LA professor, doesn’t think Garcetti feels pressure to appease UTLA in a quid pro quo arrangement. Rather, Regalado sees Garcetti’s stepped-up involvement largely boiled down to politics.

There have been widespread whisperings that the mayor is eyeing a White House run in 2020, making it “unwise,” Regalado said, to stay mum on a nationally watched teacher strike. Various other Democratic powerhouses — U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, to name a few — have espoused their support for L.A.’s educators on Twitter.

“It’s an issue forced upon him, and one that he didn’t want to seize by the horns,” Regalado said. “All other Democrats he could be running against nationally have come out in support of the union. … He’s trying to be bold; trying to get the thing done.”

Who’s next?

This building pressure to get things done has called into question Newsom’s and Thurmond’s roles as well in bridging the divide as soon as possible. Education pundits diverged slightly on whether they thought state-level leaders should serve more as a backstop to Garcetti or more proactively enter the fray.

Beutner has repeatedly called on the state for help, saying last Friday, “We need [the governor] to step in … keep us in a room, lock the door and throw away the key if he has to.”

Newsom, after having brokered informal talks with both sides last weekend, addressed the stalled contract negotiations in a statement Monday. “This impasse is disrupting the lives of too many kids and their families,” he said. “I strongly urge all parties to go back to the negotiating table.”

Thurmond tweeted Thursday that he had met with Garcetti and both sides’ leaders and had been “in communication with all parties since taking office to resolve disagreements.”

As the L.A. Times’ editorial board pointed out, Newsom and Thurmond are also union-backed, so “their interpretation of the district’s financial situation and their pressure for the strike to end should carry some weight with United Teachers Los Angeles.”

The state is also the central bank. It provides 90 percent of L.A. Unified’s funding, so “it makes sense to have the source of that money in Sacramento be lobbied to try to help solve this,” Trujillo said, referencing Newsom.

Newsom has already allocated greater K-12 funding in his proposed 2019-20 state budget: a $2.8 billion hike in Proposition 98 funds and $3 billion to assuage growing pension costs burdening school districts statewide. L.A. Unified would see more than $40 million in added general fund dollars next year if that budget passes, a district spokeswoman told LA School Report last week. The union believes Newsom’s budget plan would bring in $140 million, according to the L.A. Times.

But the $3 billion, at least, is a one-time investment, which L.A. County overseers have warned against as the district works to correct its finances long term. Newsom also has other education priorities competing for his attention, such as early education expansion.

• Read more: LAUSD could lose control of its finances if it agrees to a teachers contract that depletes reserves, county warns

“One-year infusions won’t help,” Regalado said. “This is a long-term strategy [the governor] needs to be thinking about and talking more publicly about.”

The possibility of copy cat strikes looms, starting with Oakland Unified School District.

State leadership is “nervous” about the unrest, Regalado said. “They don’t want this to spread like wildfire.”

So it’s about strategy. “Right now L.A. is the big cheese … it’s the one on the news,” he said. “But if, in fact, Newsom does step in with additional funding for LAUSD, then he’s going to have to make sure that this plays to urban and rural districts across California statewide. But LAUSD, because of its size and political importance, would get the largest chunk.”

Austin hopes that whatever resolution emerges — whether outside political involvement forces it or not — is a meaningful step forward for students’ education.

“The goal here should go beyond ending the strike,” he said. City and state leadership have “the political leverage to force a deal, but that’s only half [the battle]. The deal has to actually put kids first.”

*Updated Friday afternoon with Beutner reporting instructional hours lost and the cost to the district for lower attendance. 

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