Schooled: LA superintendent gets crash course in California union politics

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Los Angeles schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho seems to have learned an early lesson about California politics: Public employee unions hold serious sway.

Carvalho and the Los Angeles Unified School District reached an agreement Tuesday with the teacher’s union that will increase pay by 21 percent, reduce class size — and avert what would have been the second strike of the year in the nation’s second-largest district.

The imposing, Armani-wearing superintendent, who came to the city last year after running the school district in Miami, appears to have largely bowed to the demands of United Teachers Los Angeles rather than risk a walkout that would have been illegal back in Florida.

“I am grateful that we reached an agreement with UTLA in a manner that reflects the dedicated work of our employees, provides a better academic experience for our students and raises the standards of compensation in Los Angeles and across the country,” Carvalho said in a statement.

It was a critical moment for Carvalho, who received acclaim for his work in Miami but faces an entirely different labor environment in Los Angeles. A three-day support staff strike last month shuttered Los Angeles schools and kept more than 350,000 students out of class. He escaped a repeat by reaching an agreement with the powerful UTLA.

“I’m hopeful that he learned some very valuable lessons,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in an interview. “Because he could have had two strikes within two months, and what would that have said about his leadership?”

The superintendent has spoken frequently about the need to make up instructional time lost during the pandemic since arriving in Los Angeles. Another strike would have dealt another setback to that goal and put his fragile relationship with labor at risk.

“I think he’s done an excellent job of positioning himself as an action-oriented leader, but I think he greatly underestimated the difference in the strength of labor unions at the bargaining table in California relative to Florida,” said Eric Premack, founder of the California Charter Schools Development Center, who used to do consulting work for Los Angeles Unified and other school districts.

Carvalho came to the U.S. from Portugal as an undocumented immigrant after he graduated from high school, settling in South Florida. He worked construction and restaurant jobs, and was at times homeless before becoming a teacher. He later did communications work and lobbied for the Miami-Dade School District, which he went on to run for 13 years.

He gained national prominence in the role, rebuffing entreaties to run for Congress and lead New York City Schools. But it wasn’t until 2022 that he left Miami, exhausted by his clashes with Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican politicians over school mask policies, curriculum restrictions and the treatment of LGBTQ students.

“I had been approached regarding LAUSD four times over the past decade, and concerning the political dynamic in Florida — a state I love, great people, great talent — I thought this would be a better match for me,” Carvalho told reporters last week in Sacramento, where he came to lobby for more school funding and other education proposals.

His 14-month tenure has been full of challenges, including a cyberattack that exposed families’ personal data, a student’s fatal opioid overdose at school and sliding enrollment and chronic absenteeism.

But he’s faced the steepest learning curve with bargaining.

In March, teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers walked picket lines, some holding cardboard signs deriding Carvalho’s fine suits and $440,000 salary. One included a picture of the superintendent surrounded by cartoon money bags with the caption “Mr. Miami Vice Grip.”

The superintendent’s administration, meanwhile, was negotiating on behalf of a school board in which the majority of members are aligned with UTLA. Labor-friendly President Jackie Goldberg told reporters the board is “completely overjoyed” with the agreement reached by the union and superintendent.

Carvalho has avoided another strike, for now. But for California superintendents and unions, the bargaining never really stops. The contract for support staff expires after next year, along with a massive chunk of federal coronavirus relief funding, compounding financial pressure on the district.

But he insists that he’s happy to have Florida and its politics at a 2,000-mile distance.

“We don’t ban books here. We don’t restrict curriculum. We acknowledge all individuals, regardless of gender, persuasion, whatever it is,” Carvalho said last week. “I think dealing with a different, more forceful union is a decent tradeoff I'm willing to take any day.”