LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Union leaders and administrators with the Los Angeles Unified School District announced a tentative deal Tuesday that could send teachers back to the classroom Wednesday, ending the first Los Angeles teachers strike in 30 years.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl joined Mayor Eric Garcetti at a morning news conference at City Hall to announce the breakthrough, which Garcetti said came after "a 21-hour marathon session that wrapped up just before sunrise this morning."
UTLA teachers went on strike Jan. 14, calling for smaller class sizes and the hiring of more support staff, such as nurses, counselors and librarians, and a pay raise. Beutner said during the standoff with the union that its demands would cost billions of dollars and bankrupt a district already teetering on insolvency.
The new proposal will be voted on by UTLA members on Tuesday, and if it is ratified, teachers will return to work Tuesday. The LAUSD Board of Education also needs to formally approve the deal.
"The strike nobody wanted is now behind us," Beutner said at the City Hall news conference, reflecting confidence that the deal will be approved.
But he also cautioned: "We can't solve 40 years of under-investment in public education in just one week or just one contract. Now that all students and our educators are heading back to the classroom, we have to keep pour focus and pay attention to the long-term solutions. ... The importance of this moment is public education is now the topic in every household in our community. Let's capitalize on this. Let's fix it."
Caputo-Pearl said the tentative agreement addressed the union's core issues.
"We have seen over the last week something pretty amazing happen," Caputo-Pearl said. "We went on strike in one of the largest strikes the United States has seen in decades. And the creativity and innovation and passion and love and emotion of our members was out on the street, in the communities, in the parks for everyone to see."
Exact details of the tentative agreement were not immediately released, although Beutner confirmed the deal includes a 6 percent pay raise for teachers.
Caputo-Pearl said the issue of class size is a key element of the pact. He said the district agreed to eliminate contract language he dubbed an "escape clause" that would allow the district to increase class sizes in the future.
Garcetti, whose office took an active role in contract talks over the last five days, did not discuss specifics, but said the deal would phase in class-size rollbacks over the next several years. He also referenced the recent vote by the county Board of Supervisors to provide the district with $10 million in funding for mental health services for students and staff. County and district officials said that money is enough to fund a fund a nurse at every elementary school campus.
A main thrust of the union's strike was a call for increases in the number of nurses, counselors and librarians at campuses. It was still unclear what type of staffing increases are included in the proposed deal and how they would be funded. Garcetti said the deal's various provisions include a combination of funding or other support from the state, county and city.
It was also unclear if the proposed pact included any specific language regarding charter schools, the expansion of which within the district has been hotly contested by the union.
"We have seen over the last few weeks the way that the city has rallied around public education, and quite frankly it's been breathtaking; it's been inspiring to see," Garcetti said.
Just before the strike began, Beutner said the district's latest contract offer to the union "represents the best we can do," but of the new deal, he said Tuesday that "this does even more" than the previous one.
The district's offer earlier this month included the hiring of 1,200 teachers, capping middle and high school English/math classes at 39 students, capping grades four through six at 35 students, maintaining all other existing class sizes, adding a full-time nurse at every elementary school and adding another academic counselor at high schools.
UTLA officials rejected the proposal, saying it did not go far enough to bolster school staffing, reduce class sizes and prevent them from increasing in the future. The union also said the proposed staff increases were only funded for a single year. The union also contended the district's 6 percent salary increase proposal was contingent on benefit cuts to future union members.
The union had been calling for a 6.5 percent raise that would take effect all at once and a year sooner. Details of the 6 percent pay hike in the new tentative agreement were not immediately released.
The union had vocally disputed the district's claim that it cannot afford more extensive investment in school staffing, pointing to what it calls an estimated $1.8 billion reserve fund and insisting the district has not faced a financial deficit in five years. The district contends that reserve fund is already being spent, in part on the salary increase for teachers.
Caputo-Pearl, who stood next to Beutner during the news conference, was asked about his past comments in which he harshly criticized the superintendent while accusing him of lying about the amount of money the district has available, and being dedicated to privatizing schools. The UTLA president was also asked if he could trust Beutner to follow through on the deal.
"We have, Austin Beutner and I, we certainly have our differences, and we've expressed those, and I think we will continue to express those. But what we've been able to do over the last chunk of days is work together with a bunch of partners and a bunch of help to forge an agreement that we are both committed to making sure is implemented, to make sure that our students are served and our schools are improved," Caputo-Pearl said.
He added, "We are building trust, and the last several days have helped on that."
Garcetti quipped that "I'm not saying that everybody is going to go and have a beer today, but I do think that this is a new chapter."
The second-largest school district in the nation, the LAUSD covers 710 square miles and serves more than 694,000 students at 1,322 schools, although 216 schools are independent charter schools, most of which were being staffed with non-union teachers unaffected by the strike. The district says about 500,000 students have been affected by the walkout.