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Gabrielle Birkner

Umbrellas and anger dominate day 1 of the Los Angeles teachers strike

“It’s raining, it’s pouring; the teachers are roaring,” was among the rallying cries Monday as educators — umbrellas in one hand and picket signs in the other — took to the streets to protest working and learning conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District.

Theirs was the first teachers strike in three decades in the nation’s second-largest school district, affecting more than 500,000 students. With national attention focused on them, educators called for smaller classes and more resources while taking special aim at charter schools and superintendent Austin Beutner, whose supporters have promoted charters.

“We believe he wants to starve the public schools,” said Marlene Calvo, a second-grade teacher at Vine Street Elementary School in Hollywood, surrounded by colleagues protesting in front of the school.

Some signs took aim at the LAUSD superintendent.

Some signs took aim at the LAUSD superintendent.

District leaders say that’s untrue — that they are trying to do right by their teachers and students while not going broke. The district’s latest offer, which the union rejected Friday, included a 6 percent raise, $130 million in funding for additional hires, and a full-time nurse at every elementary school. LAUSD has also agreed to modest class-size reductions. In grades 4-6, classes would be capped at 35, down from 36; in high school, the maximum class size would be about 39, down from 42.

On Monday, participating teachers from across the sprawling district, as well as school counselors, nurses, and librarians, began the day with small-scale protests in front of their schools. Then they joined forces at a downtown Los Angeles park, marching in heavy rain to district headquarters.

Many striking teachers wore red shirts, hats, and ponchos in a nod to the nationwide Red for Ed movement that galvanized teachers last year in states such as Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona.

Unlike in those states, teachers unions are powerful entities in California, where the state government is also a Democratic stronghold. Rather than rail at state lawmakers, then, Los Angeles teachers’ signs and chants targeted Beutner, a former investment banker, civil servant, and newspaper publisher who has led the district since May. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Austin Beutner’s got to go,” was a popular chant. Some handmade signs featured his image, and others called him out by name.

“Stop Beutner and the other oligarchs from taking over LAUSD,” one sign read.

Halting charter school expansion is not the focus of the union’s contract demands. But the union has called for a moratorium on new charters, saying that these schools divert resources from district-run schools. About one in five Los Angeles public school students attend a charter.

Among those demonstrating Monday were veteran educators who were walking the picket line for the second time — having participated in the nine-day Los Angeles teachers strike 30 years ago. “In 1989, it was really just about a raise,” said Lee Tuomala, who teaches chemistry and physics at Hollywood High School. This time around, “it’s not just about the money, it’s about the future in education,” he said, citing class sizes that he said are not conducive to learning.  

“I have 41 students in an honors physics class — that’s too many,” Tuomala said.

Class size remains at issue between LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents more than 30,000 educators. So, too, does funding for additional support staff.

Patrick Doran, who has worked in the district for 20 years, is the sole psychologist for three schools with a combined enrollment of roughly 2,500 students. Splitting his time between Wonderland and Roscomare Road elementary schools and the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school serving students grades 6-12, Doran said the vast majority of his time is spent evaluating students for special education services, writing up reports, and attending Individualized Education Program meetings.

What doesn’t get the time it deserves, he said, is the hard work of tending to “the emotional needs of students, what’s going on in their lives, and teaching them how to be more resilient and how to be more connected to other human beings.”

“You have to go home at night, and you worry,” he said.

Before heading to the picket line Monday morning, Doran wrote an email California’s new Gov. Gavin Newsom, asking him “to fully fund education.” Last week, Newsom unveiled his proposed $209 billion budget, including increases to education spending. The overwhelming majority of LAUSD’s $7.49 billion budget comes from the state of California, which spends roughly half as much per student as New York.

“The district should do as much as they can now with the money they have now,” Tuomala told Chalkbeat, citing LAUSD’s $1.7 billion reserves, “and then the union and the district can join together to lobby Sacramento for more per-pupil funding because that’s really what the issue is.” (The district says that reserve could soon become a deficit.)

District schools remained open during the strike, with administrators and substitute staffers working with the students who showed up for school.

At VAPA Legacy High School in South Gate, students in attendance gathered in the auditorium and were given packets of worksheets, said Atzel Martinez, a 17-year-old senior who walked out mid-morning to join teachers on the picket line downtown. He brought with him a sign that read “Maestros trabajamos por el pueblo,” Spanish for “Teachers work for the people.”

“They are striking for us,” Martinez said. “We have an obligation to strike with them.”

The union held a press conference Monday evening, indicating the strike would extend into a second day.