Watching the Austin Beutner vs. Alex Caputo-Pearl Grudge Match: a Parent’s Perspective on the LAUSD Teacher Strike

A strike by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teachers, authorized by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), is set to begin this Thursday, January 10. Except it may begin Monday, January 14. Today is January 8, and not even the Los Angeles Times knows when the strike might actually begin.

Confused?

Welcome to the world of navigating anything regarding LAUSD, even a strike.

To help set the scene for you, here’s a bit of background on the two major players in the LAUSD vs. UTLA battle for our hearts and minds.

The LAUSD administration is led by former Los Angeles Times publisher and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner. Beutner also has a background in investment banking, where he made more than $100 million when his firm had its initial public offering.

One of Superintendent Beutner’s self-described signature accomplishments in his short stint as Deputy Mayor in the Villaraigosa administration was to relocate Beverly Hills BMW into the City of Los Angeles. Which he did. But they kept the name Beverly Hills BMW, despite their new location at Wilshire and Highland, well east of the City of Beverly Hills. That’s right—Beutner couldn’t negotiate a simple name change for a car dealership to reflect its actual geographical location.

UTLA is led by Alex Caputo-Pearl, a teacher for 22 years in the Compton and LAUSD school systems. Caputo-Pearl wears it as a badge of honor that in 2006, the then-LAUSD superintendent administratively transferred him from Crenshaw High School for his union organizing activity. These bona fides got Caputo-Pearl elected as UTLA’s President in 2014.

As the Los Angeles Times piece details, Caputo-Pearl and UTLA missed the 10:00am Monday, January 7 deadline for electronically filing a court hearing request for Tuesday, January 8 to resolve whether the strike could legally begin Thursday, January 10 or Monday, January 14.

The moral of this story? Don’t ever hire Austin Beutner or Alex Caputo-Pearl to negotiate on your behalf.

Even with dates uncertain, the reasons for UTLA’s strike are clear: teachers are set to strike because they want more compensation, smaller class sizes, more school resources such as additional librarians, counselors, and nurses, and fewer standardized tests that take away from conventional instruction time.

In response, Beutner has said on numerous occasions that LAUSD would love to pay teachers more, but we can’t, because the district would run out of money, and if we run out of money, we have to lay off teachers, and we don’t want to do that, so we can’t pay teachers more, but we’re willing to go to the brink to prove our point, but hey, we’ll agree to give you a 6% raise going back to June 2017.

UTLA, however, refuses to believe Austin Beutner, maintaining the District is lying and squirreling away money, because, you know, Austin Beutner’s a finance guy and this is what finance guys do, so we know LAUSD has the money to pay teachers more, so pay us more, like, a 6.5% raise going back to June 2016, and while you’re at it, hire more librarians and counselors and nurses.

The articulations of both sides’ positions remind me of the debates I had in my 9th grade Model United Nations Club — yes, they’re quite earnest, but they’re never going to sway the other side. And just so I’m putting it out there, I would like to get a 7% raise going back to 2010, because I am a damn tough negotiator.

Perhaps the biggest hang-up at this point is the infamous “Section 1.5” in the District’s contract with UTLA, which LAUSD had wanted to keep, that allows the District to unilaterally increase class sizes. Larger class sizes translate into less of an urgent need for additional teachers, which certainly doesn’t sit well with UTLA or its membership.

To address the class size issue, Beutner and LAUSD proposed on Monday to replace Section 1.5 with — get this — Section 1.8, which still allows for class size increases if certain conditions are met. Class size increases of any kind are kryptonite for UTLA, and predictably, UTLA considers Section 1.8 a bait-and-switch. So, instead of the two sides debating the financial or operational merits, we have a front-row seat to a grudge match showcasing each side’s fundamental distrust of one another.

So, how does this all impact LAUSD parents and families? Beutner and Caputo-Pearl are (insert sarcastic surprise emoji here) polar opposites when it comes to giving us advice on coping during the strike. Beutner and the LAUSD administration want us to continue to send our kids to school once the strike begins. Conversely, Caputo-Pearl and UTLA want us to keep our kids out of school to starve the District of funding, which would somehow force the District’s hand and make them negotiate a more favorable contract with teachers.

Sadly, Beutner and Caputo-Pearl are divorced from the practical reality of most LAUSD families. Families with a single parent, or with two working parents, simply don’t have the bandwidth, practically or financially, to keep their kids out of school. And the prospect of a week or more of glorified babysitting — without any substantive academics— doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouth of parents who’ve been supportive of our public schools by voting with our feet (enrollment) and voting with our time (parental engagement).

In the 2016–17 school year, LAUSD lost $630 million in state funding due to chronically absent students, defined as students missing 15 or more school days — comprising 14.3% of the student population. Even if only 10% of LAUSD parents kept their kids home during the strike to show support for UTLA over two or three weeks, the District would take an additional financial hit that could well amount to tens of millions of dollars.

In the longer term, LAUSD’s rift with its teaching corps has even graver outcomes for the District. For parents on the fence whether to continue to send their kids to LAUSD schools susceptible to labor meltdowns, the choice to switch over to private or parochial schools, despite the financial cost, becomes easier. And the prospect of fewer LAUSD students in future years has serious repercussions.

An overall decline in LAUSD enrollment will continue to wreak havoc with LAUSD’s finances — and the amount of money available to pay UTLA’s teachers — since the District receives funding from the state based on average daily attendance. The result? A downward spiral of more financial problems for the District, more labor unrest, and a greater likelihood of future strikes. Is that what LAUSD, or UTLA, or parents — or, more importantly, our children — really need?

Sadly, this impasse between LAUSD and UTLA leaves parents and kids in the lurch. As one of those LAUSD families with two working parents, our elementary school-age daughter will either be coming to work with us or, at best, she’ll be sitting in her elementary school auditorium watching VHS videos of “Schoolhouse Rock.” Coming off the heels of a three-week winter break, long division is going to be even longer this school year.

Here’s the ultimate irony: during the strike, both sides will get what they want. LAUSD won’t have to pay striking teachers, saving millions of dollars in salary expenses. And with thousands of students being kept home by parents unwilling to cross picket lines, well, there will be smaller class sizes.

Beutner and Caputo-Pearl need to recognize that even if either of them win, our daughter — and thousands of LAUSD families — ultimately lose. So, guys, put the grudge match aside, start agreeing on some fundamental facts, and be open to taking half a loaf if you reach another impasse. We’re counting on you.

And, for the record, I wasn’t joking about that 7% raise.

David Gershwin, a public affairs consultant, is the parent of a daughter at an LAUSD elementary school in the San Fernando Valley. His firm’s website can be found at www.davidgershwin.com