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How Mayor Eric Garcetti And A 'Leap Of Faith' Helped End LA's Teachers Strike

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, file photo, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Los Angeles. (Richard Vogel/AP)
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On the day Los Angeles Unified School District teachers went on strike, Mayor Eric Garcetti suggested resolving the dispute might require a small "leap of faith" by school district officials.

By that, Garcetti meant it might require LAUSD officials to commit to spend more on the contract demands of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, even if they didn't yet know where the funding would come from.

Two days later, the mayor announced his staff would broker new talks between UTLA and LAUSD at City Hall. Over five days of negotiations -- including a 21-hour, all-night session from Monday into Tuesday -- the parties hammered out a tentative contract agreement.

Over a three-and-a-half year contract term, LAUSD officials agreed to spend more money to gradually meet several key UTLA demands: reducing class sizes and hiring more support staff. District officials say, though, that the deal will hinge on all three parties -- LAUSD, UTLA and the Mayor's Office -- finding new streams of funding for the school district.

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The cost of the new agreement really ramps up starting in 2021. If the district can't find new sources of revenue by 2020, both LAUSD and city officials have said the deal would likely have to be revisited.

In other words, Garcetti's "leap of faith" is part of that agreement.

On Wednesday morning, after Garcetti read to students in a transitional kindergarten class at Elysian Heights Elementary, KPCC/LAist sat down with Garcetti to discuss the deal.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti (center) reads to transitional kindergarten students at Elysian Heights Elementary School on the first day back in regular classes for United Teachers Los Angeles union members after a six-day strike, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

KPCC/LAist has condensed the mayor's answers below, editing for length and clarity. Quote from this readout with caution.

KPCC/LAist: Before the strike, there was a question of whether you were going to get involved in the negotiations. You offered to host the talks at City Hall, but the union and the district declined at first. What was the turning point that wound up putting you and your team in the middle?

Garcetti: I was never "rejected." I think that's been misreported. I've been speaking to the parties involved since August, so when the strike happened, I encouraged them to go to the table we'd already offered -- a neutral space if ever they needed mediation. I was very surprised how little communication was going on not only between the principle players, but one level down from that. We worked really hard talking to school board members, the superintendent and union leaders to say, "What can we do to help move this along?" It seemed very clear to me that that there was such frustration on both sides.

KPCC/LAist: Part of the rift between the union and the district had to do with how much money LAUSD does or doesn't have. Do you think LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner was operating with the best motives? Do you think he's right that there's a problem with the district finances, and that there are vital questions about sustainability that need to be taken seriously?

GARCETTI: Oh, I think it's his job to be stressed out about finances just as it is for me as mayor, or the governor, or any chief executive needs to make sure they aren't overpromising. But as we began to dig into the finances, we realized that there was probably some common space where the district could stretch enough. The superintendent and the union have said, in the future, we're going to probably need to go to the ballot and ask people if they want classes with 45 students in them. I tried to convince both sides to act responsibly but aggressively. In other words, this is not the time to be conservative. This is the time to look at those reserves, but not recklessly.

KPCC/LAist: After the negotiations transitioned over to City Hall, talks appeared to have turned toward a three-year contract, as opposed to arguing over what will happen in the next 18 months. How did that happen?

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GARCETTI: I think it became clear that a lot of what we wanted couldn't be done in the life of the contract. This was really about the classroom size. Even if you snap your fingers and had all the money in the world, it takes time to hire teachers. Other things take time, too. There's a nurse shortage in this country. We have to make sure we have librarians and counselors. And green spaces.

Making an agreement for the next three years was something that the union was interested in doing. The district was, I think, initially curious about whether that could be achieved. But we found that we could come up with a legally binding way forward -- a longer-term contract where nobody will feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath them.

KPCC/LAist: I'm keying in on the three-year piece as a sort of turning point in the talks, but was there some other thing that really got things rolling downhill?

GARCETTI: No. I think just getting together face-to-face with a neutral party helped. They had gotten together twice already, but were in many ways still talking past each other. So when my team got involved, both Superintendent Austin Beutner and Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of the union, sat down every day before each meeting, before the parties and the bargaining teams would get together. And at the very beginning, I said, "I just asked you to abide some rules: respect confidentiality; no surprises; stay positive -- and no matter how bad things get, we are going to finish this. Go breathe, go event, yell at me if you need to, but get back to the table."

KPCC/LAist: There were some long sessions. How did everyone endure?

GARCETTI: We had huge make-your-own taco platters. There was a lot of Sun Chips, a lot of coffee. My negotiating practice was to start with really good food and big rooms. And then every day the room would get smaller and the food would get worse. So by the end, you're in a closet with really crappy pizza. Interestingly enough, I might have to change that. Because I think we did the opposite. As things got better. The food got better. And it became kind of a culinary reward for progress.

KPCC/LAist: You've said that these are people that are going to walk away and have a beer together. Was it pretty tense in the room?

GARCETTI: I don't think people became best friends overnight. But I think there was absolute trust that was developed among people. I told everyone, "If you can create a relationship with each other, that gives me a lot of encouragement that we should all spend our political capital, our treasure, our talent in making this district better." There were human moments.

KPCC/LAist: This is a deal that requires more funding in the future. How will that look? Is a parcel tax going to be on the table? Is building the airplane while attempting to fly it kind of dangerous?

GARCETTI: No, I think it's absolutely necessary, because it's stayed grounded for too long, nobody's taken off at all. You have to be willing to fly. I do think we'll need state help. We saw it in the governor's budget, and I hope it continues in future budgets. And I think we will. It is substantial. But no, it's not enough. That's why I think a state measure would help us get there and a local measure should be coming.

I will consider supporting either an initiative that will go to operations and allow us to continue the momentum of reducing class size or help us to build out the schools and create green spaces and really great learning environments. So much of this always comes down to dollars and policies that we forget what's it like for a kid that's in a class with 42 students in a bungalow. That isn't acceptable in our town. We need to take it from okay to good and from good to great.

KPCC/LAist: Gotta ask -- can you run for president now?

GARCETTI: This was not about me. This week was all about our children. This was all about a school district. You know, somebody said, I should probably go to Washington, D.C. and work on the shutdown next. I'm actually headed there in a couple hours

KPCC/LAist: Just for a conference though, right?

GARCETTI: Just for the Conference of Mayors. But I'm going to share this story with them, because I hope it inspires people nationally -- that this wasn't just about L.A., it's a good model for our national leaders too.

KPCC/LAist: There's not a podium there with an American flag behind it and a crowd waiting?

GARCETTI: No, there's no surprise in Washington, just a mayor doing his work.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on KPCC. Listen to it here.


5:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reporting about the deal.

This article was originally published at 3:06 p.m.

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