Tensions over union contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District, mounting since United Teachers Los Angeles announced its intention earlier in December to call a Jan. 10 strike, reached dramatic heights this week as both sides emerged Monday from a seven-hour meeting with only adversarial press conferences to show for it.

LAUSD offered a 6 percent salary raise and $100 million to hire staff with the goal of reducing class sizes, and UTLA withdrew demands for more teacher control over test scores, budgets and magnet decisions — but none of that appeared to even remotely bring them closer to a deal. Instead, both sides used the new proposal points to spin their respective messages, the latest in a wildly contentious media battle.

Meanwhile, the strike itself — or at least its timing, not inconsequential in a public fight relying on morale and momentum, balanced against potential fallout — may hinge on a legal technicality. The union on Dec. 19 announced its intent to walk out on Thursday, Jan. 10, but the district claims UTLA didn’t follow protocol in giving a required 10-day notice. The issue was to be heard in L.A. Superior Court Tuesday but the matter was continued on a separate technicality, according to the L.A. Times. If a judge sides with LAUSD, it could delay the planned Jan. 10 strike.

The district’s latest proposal included $100 million to add nearly 1,000 teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians. At a Monday press conference, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl scoffed, “We were surprised the district came in with so little to offer.” He claimed a proposal to reduce class sizes by adding staff in reality amounted to less than one new person per school. “If you’re trying to reduce class size and have full-time nurses, when you have 80 percent of our schools without a full-time nurse, it’s going to take more than just one additional staff person.”

Caputo-Pearl called the district’s proposal “unacceptable,” taking issue with class size caps (39 and 46 students in elementary and secondary, respectively), overtures to reform regulations that allow the district to increase class size (“a bait-and-switch”), and the fact that the proposed 6 percent salary increase would exclude health care for future hires. He cast the suggestion to cover only some staffing increases for a year as part of LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner’s plan to privatize the district.

In a statement Monday, LAUSD countered that the union “failed to put forth any proposal to try and resolve the issue of class size and salary,” noting its concessions were limited to withdrawing items already outside the scope of bargaining.

“The notion that more money exists somewhere else with which to do more to reduce class size at this time is not accurate,” Beutner said at the Monday press conference. “If they want to come in with an independent auditor, challenge these numbers, find any other money, find anything in the closets or cupboards, we will certainly invest it in our students.”

Over the past 20 months of negotiations, UTLA has insisted that, with nearly $1.9 billion in reserves (and a previous pattern of underestimating), the district can afford to better meet demands for lower class size, salary increases, staffing investments and changes the union contends are critical to fending off cannibalization by charter schools. The district counters with projected budget shortfalls, which it contends are inevitable with the rising costs of employee pensions and health care, not to mention the threat of recession or other unforeseen financial crisis.

By the end of Tuesday, LAUSD issued a statement reiterating its “commitment to averting a strike,” nodding to the Board of Education’s approval earlier in the day of an “enterprise plan” to boost education funding and hedge against structural deficit. (The board also relaxed its policy on campus volunteers, which could soften the blow to operations in the event of a strike.)

Both sides were scheduled back at the bargaining table today.

UPDATE (3:43 p.m.): UTLA today announced that they are delaying the proposed strike date to Monday, Jan. 14.

LA Weekly