MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In LA today, school buses made the rounds. School cafeterias served breakfast to students. Los Angeles public schools were open, in other words, but without their teachers. Today is Day 2 of a teachers' strike, and classrooms are being staffed by administrators and volunteers and some 400 newly hired substitute teachers.
We're going to hear a couple of different perspectives on this strike. And we're going to start with Nick Melvoin. He is vice president of the LA school board, and he joins us now. Mr. Melvoin, thanks for being with us.
NICK MELVOIN: Thanks so much for having me on.
KELLY: Paint me a picture of how today has gone. I mean, when I say LA schools are open, are kids showing up? Are they staying home? Are they actually in the classrooms learning?
MELVOIN: It's a mix. You know, we have a legal responsibility - and I would argue a moral obligation - to keep kids safe at school, especially when about 82 percent of our families are living in poverty and we have nearly 17,000 homeless students. So schools are open. We are serving hundreds of...
KELLY: And you said 82 percent living in poverty - wow, yeah.
MELVOIN: Eighty-two percent, and so a lot of our families don't have another option. Now, you know, I began my career as an LA Unified teacher in south Los Angeles. And I can tell you that the day that the students will be having in schools is not a typical one.
KELLY: Well, let me ask you about the effort to get things back on track and get teachers back in schools. I'll play you a little bit of - this is LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, who I assume you know and work with. He called parents on Sunday night with a message, and here it is.
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AUSTIN BEUTNER: We did not want a strike. We tried our best to avoid it. And we'll continue to work around the clock to find a solution to end the strike.
KELLY: Work around the clock, he says. So are negotiations happening today?
MELVOIN: Unfortunately they're not. The union walked away from the table on Friday. And we're doing everything we can to get them back. We have been negotiating with the teachers union...
KELLY: What does that mean, everything you can?
MELVOIN: You know, we've been negotiating for about two years. I've been on the board for a year and a half, and our superintendent has been on the board for about six months. And they've been talking about a strike for a while, and so it didn't come as that much of a surprise. But we are hopeful that we can resolve this quickly. We are at the table. We are...
KELLY: But you're not at the (laughter) table, if I may. You just said there are no negotiations underway.
MELVOIN: We're - you know, we're at the table with an empty chair on the other side. We are talking to the mayor. We're talking to the governor and his staff and asking for all the support that we can get to bring the union back to the table. You know, a lot of the things they're asking for and that we're hearing teachers ask for around the country are incredibly valid. But we're ready to settle this and find ways to support our teachers and then work collectively to grow the pie so that our students, most of whom are living in poverty, have the resources they need to succeed.
KELLY: So I just heard you acknowledge that conditions for teachers working in LA public schools aren't great. I know you've just written an op-ed making that very point in the LA Times, saying that, you know, the classes are too big, and their pensions are underfunded. They have all - got all kinds of issues. I mean, why shouldn't they stand up for a better deal?
MELVOIN: Well, I think they should stand up for better working conditions. I think where I try to distinguish the two is, you know, what is in LA Unified's control and what is in the state's control. The pension issue, $100 billion unfunded pension liability, is at the state level. And when districts have to start, you know, paying more to make up that difference, that's money away from salaries and away from class size reductions. When 90 percent of our funding comes from Sacramento, we can't spend money we don't have.
KELLY: So from where you sit, from the school board's point of view, what's the big sticking point at this moment?
MELVOIN: I - right now, it's been an unwillingness to come to the table. I think that's where I'm hopeful in my conversations with the mayor and the governor's team that I think they're trying to get through to the union. And now that they've had this demonstration, they will in the next few days come back to the table. And then hopefully by next week, we'll have schools back to normal.
And again, not just normal as status quo, but we need to continue to do more for our kids. It's not OK that out of a hundred kids in LA, only 12 will graduate from college. We can do better, and we can't do better without our teachers. So I appreciate what they're doing and hope the nation will not just, you know, tweet its support but vote its support.
KELLY: Nick Melvoin, thanks for taking the time.
MELVOIN: Thanks so much for having me on.
KELLY: Nick Melvoin is vice president of the LA school board. We reached out to the union that represents LA teachers and spoke with its president, Randi Weingarten. She told NPR the school board leaders, quote, "don't seem to really understand or care about the everyday needs of kids in the district." She says teachers will continue to demand better learning conditions.
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