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Anger over budget cuts boils over at L.A. schools

Hundreds of teachers call in sick and hundreds of high school students walk out of classrooms. The teachers union president is among 39 arrested at a sit-in outside L.A. Unified headquarters.

May 16, 2009|Jason Song and Howard Blume

The head of the Los Angeles teachers union was among 39 people arrested Friday during a sit-in outside the school district headquarters, one among dozens of peaceful protests around the city by teachers and students outraged by plans for deep cuts in education spending.

"Don't raise class size!" the protesters chanted before Los Angeles Police Department officers moved in to break up the demonstration.

United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy was among those who had raised his fist in response to police requests to disperse, and who was bound with plastic handcuffs and taken away in an LAPD bus for booking on a charge of blocking a public street.

All of those arrested were later released.

The protesters' ire was stoked by plans for layoffs of as many as 2,500 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, the consequence of billions of dollars in statewide cuts to education.

Schools throughout L.A. were disrupted as hundreds of teachers called in sick and hundreds of high school students walked out of classrooms to protest the cutbacks at the district, the nation's second-largest after New York City.

Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said after the protests that Duffy and a top aide had met with him the day before to suggest a compromise: The district would spend more of its federal stimulus money than planned in the coming year, forestalling the need for any teacher layoffs, and the union would agree to concessions, such as a wage freeze or unpaid furloughs.

Cortines said he was open to such a deal, and that he might be able to offer jobs as long-term substitutes to laid-off teachers.

Duffy had no comment on those negotiations.

Danis Cybulski, a fourth-grade teacher at Aldama Elementary School in Highland Park, said she could accept a pay freeze or furlough days.

"I would stand behind the union as long as class sizes aren't increased and wasteful spending stopped," she said.

Earlier in the week, a judge issued a restraining order prohibiting the teachers union from holding a one-day strike to protest the budget cuts.

Cortines said the headquarters demonstration had not violated the order because the teachers involved were either on a break between semesters at year-round schools or had arranged for substitute teachers.

The superintendent, however, said he was not happy with the civil disobedience.

"I don't think that's the kind of image I want for our system," he said.

The school district reported that it had 3,152 requests for substitute teachers, or roughly 700 more than usual for a Friday in May.

Students walked out of class at several high schools and held sit-ins in support of teachers.

About 500 students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles held a sit-in Friday morning in the school's central yard. Later, they moved to the athletic field bleachers, and the school provided a sound system so they could discuss why they didn't want teachers laid off. Garfield could lose 13 English and social studies teachers.

At Jordan High School in South Los Angeles, about 200 students gathered in the quad to show solidarity with teachers, and the campus was put on lockdown in what Principal Stephen Strachan called a routine security measure.

When students refused to go back into class, Strachan said, he gave them a microphone and about 15 students spoke out about the proposed layoffs.

"I'm very proud of our kids and their willingness to cooperate," he said.

Hundreds of students also walked out at Maywood Academy. And scores of students chose not to return to their classrooms after a morning break at Franklin High School in Highland Park.

"We care about the teachers," Jasmine Guerrero, a senior, said in a telephone interview. "But it's more about us. One teacher for 45 students, it's not a productive learning environment."

Meanwhile, about 150 parents gathered at Balboa Park in Encino and then marched to a local district office to demand, symbolically, their own place at the table. The effort was high in both good feeling and indignation.

Many in the group had their children in schools with middle-class populations, a relative rarity in the district.

They included school board member Tamar Galatzan, who represents the west San Fernando Valley, and entertainer and author Sandra Tsing Loh.

"I missed Woodstock and the protest against the Vietnam War," Loh told the enthusiastic gathering. "Many of us have found as moms we've joined the church of public school. We've found the faith."

Parent Erin Shachory said she didn't feel as though she could rely on either the school district or the teachers union to set the agenda for parents.

Another parent, Jane Poole, said the event, dubbed the Lemonade Rally, "put fires in our belly. We're being re-energized. This is uniting us."

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jason.song@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writers Victoria Kim, Mitchell Landsberg and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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