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Many L.A. teachers call in sick today; scattered protests

May 15, 2009 | 10:23 am

About 700 more teachers than usual called in sick today in the Los Angeles Unified School District, days after a judge ordered the teachers union to call off a planned one-day strike.

District officials are bracing for expected acts of "civil disobedience" at schools and at district headquarters downtown, despite a renewed warning from the judge against violations of his order.

On a normal May Friday about 2,300 of the district's 34,000 teachers would be out of class. Several hundred of these are scheduled absences for school-related duties, such as meetings to update individual education plans for disabled students. But the overall call for substitute teachers was about one-third higher than normal.

The teachers' union Thursday requested hundreds of substitutes -- that it planned to pay for -- to allow selected teachers to leave class to participate in acts of civil disobedience, some of which were intended to lead to arrests.

A flier at one school called for teachers to put up anti-district posters on their classroom doors and to lead class discussions relevant to the labor dispute. This news was enough to send district officials hurrying back to court.

L.A. County Superior Judge James C. Chalfant declined to issue a new order but warned that his original order remained in effect, according to district lawyers. The union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has contended that its actions would not violate the court order. 

At Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, about dozens of students held a sit-in outside the campus this morning to support teachers, they said. They planned to stay put until noon.

The mood was quiet this morning at Huntington Drive Elementary, an outpost on the district's eastern front, where Supt. Ramon C. Cortines sat in for Principal Roberto Salazar, who was attending his doctoral graduation at USC. Cortines arrived at the El Sereno school shortly after 7 a.m. and after walking the campus, strode out front to talk with teachers picketing outside.

The union had scheduled pre-school picketing across L.A. Unified and a post-school rally in place of the strike to spare teachers the risk of $1,000 fines and the possible loss of their teaching credentials for violating the court order.

The presence of Cortines with picketers triggered rumors through the union network that Cortines was walking the line with teachers. That was not true, but he shook hands with each teacher, exchanged introductions and talked shop.

He mentioned to a sixth-grade teacher that sixth grade was the first grade he taught.

"You can't be doing this for a better principal," another teacher told him, thanking him for filling in.

At least a dozen of the school's 45 teachers were picketing and cars honked their support as they drove past on busy Huntington Drive. Three teachers were absent. Student enrollment was normal for the school of 600 students.

Teachers at the school had voted strongly in support of the union's call for a one-day walkout, said faculty members, but some picketers also expressed relief that it would not be taking place.

"I did not want to walk out," said Maureen Barbosa, a special education preschool teacher who was walking the line. "But we also don't think our pay should be cut. I struggle to make a living and my husband could lose his job at any time."

She added that she could accept unpaid fulough days as a last resort.

Cortines did not pass up the opportunity to launch a charm offensive.

"Obviously, the teachers here care about their kids," he said as he walked the asphalt playground. "You can see how much these children like their school."

Parent Adela Castellanas, who is taking a morning class for adults at the campus, also praised the school but told Cortines she was concerned about security at a middle school in the area.

UTLA has been vying to reverse the possible layoff of as many as 2,500 teachers. Another 2,600 non-teachers also could lose their jobs under a budget plan aimed at closing a $596.1 million deficit. That projected deficit grew by about $250 million Thursday under the latest state budget revision from Gov. Schwarzenegger.

The union has demanded that L.A. Unified use as much federal stimulus money as needed to save jobs now. District officials have countered that the federal money has to last two years and that compensation concessions are needed to avoid layoffs, which would result in larger classes and reduced services across the district.

-- Howard Blume