Expiring teachers contract will be early test for new LA school board members

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Here's one effect of this week's Los Angeles Unified School Board elections that has little to do with charter schools:

L.A. Unified's contract with its main teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, will expire at the end of June. Negotiations on a new contract have already begun. If recent history is any indication, talks could last months — well into newly elected board members Kelly Gonez and Nick Melvoin's terms in office.

UTLA endorsed their opponents during the campaign, but will now have to work with Melvoin and Gonez — and contract talks could pose an early challenge in that relationship. (For the record, Superintendent Michelle King's team negotiates the contract; the L.A. Unified board must approve it.)

Gonez and Melvoin, who ran on promises to shake up the status quo, find themselves at odds with union leaders on one issue the new contract could cover: during the campaign, both argued the district needs to find ways to reduce the cost of its employee pensions and benefits.

On the trail, Melvoin said he felt the L.A. Unified ought to consider changing the pensions or benefits it offers to new employees so it doesn't have to alter its agreements with current employees or retirees.

But UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said the union won't stand for any such changes.

"We'll fight vigorously against anything like that," he said Tuesday night. "To cut health benefits and to threaten pensions is completely counterintuitive when you’re trying to recruit and retain educators."

Caputo-Pearl has been saying since at least last summer his goal is to ensure his members are ready to strike by early 2018, if necessary, to send a message to state lawmakers — that teachers union members want tighter regulations for charter schools and more funding for the state's K-12 schools.

But Caputo-Pearl said it's too early to tell whether Tuesday's election increases the chances that the union will go on strike.

"We are going to hold the line" in contract talks, Caputo-Pearl said, "and we are organizing toward strike readiness."

John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA, also said it's too early to tell what the board's new makeup will affect contract talks.

"When we have two new board members come in, it represents the potential for dramatic change," Rogers said. "Stability has its benefits and the union and other negotiating partners prefer stability … The lack of predictability, the lack of stability creates context in which all sorts of scenarios in including a union strike become possible."

The district's contract with Service Employees International Union Local 99 — which represents L.A. Unified employees such as teacher aides, custodians, cafeteria workers and IT technicians — also expires this summer. Like the teachers union, SEIU Local 99 endorsed Gonez and Melvoin's opponents in the election; they also endorsed incumbent Mónica García.

SEIU Local 99 president Max Arias said his union members are ready to strike, if necessary — but not because of Tuesday's vote.

"We are not gauging our negotiations based on the elections, although the election of course — I’m not naive — influences a lot what might happen," he said.

"Pension benefits are disappearing in this country," Arias said. However, he added, "I don’t have a sense the district … is coming directly at trying to take away the benefits of the employees of the district."

L.A. Unified has a $13.6 billion unfunded liability for a benefit it offers district retirees — lifetime health care coverage — and will also see its costs for pensions increase 9 percent next year to $738 million as state policymakers attempt to shore up California's pension funds for teachers and other public employees.

Much has been made of Melvoin and Gonez's election creating a four-vote bloc on the board of candidates once endorsed by the California Charter School Association; García and Ref Rodriguez also had the charter association's endorsement.

But the politics of the board's collective stance on labor relations are a little more muddled.

For instance, García also had the endorsement of SEIU Local 99 and the L.A. County Federation of Labor in her re-election run this year.

And even the school board incumbent whom Melvoin defeated and the teachers union endorsed, Steve Zimmer, spoke of working with the union to rein in the district's benefits costs. Zimmer spoke of a coming "UAW moment" between L.A. Unified and its labor unions — a reference to the auto workers union's overhaul of its healthcare plan — where the two sides would work collaboratively to reach an agreement that might save money.

In a January interview, board member García also spoke of the need to address the cost of benefits — but, like Zimmer, stressed that union leaders need to play integral roles in that conversation.

"The board, the superintendent and our bargaining units have to pay attention to this," García said. "It’s not going to go on its own. Obamacare came and went and we still have this large unfunded liability. That is true. That is something that is a big priority on the to-do list for the next 10 years …"

"But again," she said, "what is most important is that it has to be about people working on that together."

Melvoin and Gonez campaigned more broadly on the need for shoring up the district's finances. They often did so citing deficit figures that, district officials have said, reflected the worst-case scenarios more closely than the actual depth of L.A. Unified's fiscal woes.

For instance, Melvoin often referred to the district's three-year operating deficit of more than $1 billion. District officials said it's more likely the district will end the next two school years with surpluses before dipping into the red by roughly $395 million in 2018-19. Even if that forecast comes true, some district observers question whether that represents a crisis worth revisiting the district's benefits offerings.

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