Categoria: Education

Q&A: 5 Questions That Arise From LAUSD’s Historic Labor Settlement

Los Angeles Unified School District workers, parents and leaders alike rejoiced when a labor contract agreement was reached Friday, March 24, following a mammoth three-day strike that shut down America’s second-largest school system. But as the celebrations wind down and the school year rolls on, many uncertainties remain and challenges await.

In the coming weeks, members of SEIU Local 99 — the service workers union representing 30,000 bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides, cafeteria workers and special education assistants — must ratify what is still a tentative agreement. And the district must implement its new contract with the union.

But the road doesn’t end there.

The district must also get students and teachers back into their routines, reach a separate agreement with the teachers union, respond to three days of lost learning and tie up other loose ends.

And, in just one year, the district must reach a fresh agreement with SEIU Local 99, whose leaders have made it clear that they will be ready to strike again if their problems are not addressed.

So, in the aftermath of the historic strike and settlement, here are some questions that arise:

What do the agreement numbers actually mean for service workers? So many numbers were thrown around during the strike — around $4.9 billion residing in district reserves, a $25,000 average service worker salary, a $440,000 superintendent salary, a 30% pay raise demand and a 23% offer on the table — that it was hard to keep them all straight.

When the agreement was finally hammered out, even more numbers were thrown into the equation.

Here’s what its numbers mean in practice:

By Jan. 1 of next year SEIU members will have effectively received the 30% pay raise that labor leaders have been demanding from the outset of negotiations.

This is divided into a 6% retroactive raise for the 2021 school year, a 7% retroactive raise for the 2022 school and a 7% increase in July 2023. In January, workers will receive an additional $2-an-hour pay bump, which SEIU Executive Director Max Arias says reflects an average 10% raise for workers.

In addition, all SEIU members who worked in-person during the 2020 to 2021 school year will receive $1,000 in recognition of their sacrifices during the pandemic.

Other key numbers to bear in mind are the district’s promise to bring its minimum wage to $22.52 an hour and to invest $3 million in an education and professional development fund for SEIU members.

These figures will make a huge difference in the lives of service workers, many of whom work multiple jobs to make ends meet and one-in-three of whom have said they are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, according to a survey completed by the union.

“This is an equity-driven contract that will elevate potential, address homelessness and address poverty in our community,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho at a press conference on Friday.

Labor leaders were also excited by the agreement reached after their members sacrificed three days of pay and picketed through wind, rain and hail.

“SEIU Local 99’s Bargaining Committee is proud of the tentative agreement we reached with the District, which answers our core demands,” said Arias. “We emerged stronger than ever from this week’s strike and showed the entire nation that unions are the most powerful force for economic opportunity and equity.”

At week’s end, Carvalho also appeared pleased — and relieved — with the deal.

“When we started negotiating with SEIU, we promised to honor the dignity of our workforce, correct inequities impacting the lowest-wage earners, continue supporting critical student services and protect the District’s financial viability,” he posted on Twitter. “Promises made, promises delivered.”

Some parents, on the other hand, were frustrated by the whole affair and wish that the union had reached an agreement with the district instead of disrupting learning for three days. Prior to the strike, the district had offered a 23% raise over time and a one-time 3% retention bonus.

Parents walk their children to school at 135th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles on Friday, March 24, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer) How will the district address three days of lost classroom time? Around 420,000 students missed three days of classroom instruction during the strike.

Had they not just emerged from a highly disruptive pandemic, these days would likely just be a blip, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. But, piled atop more than two years fraught with an alarming rate of learning loss and missed socialization, they represent a more significant harm, he added.

María Sanchez, a South Los Angeles parent whose son is deaf, said she already had a hard time getting him to readjust to in-person schooling and is very worried about how the strike will set him back.

“As it is, it’s hard for me to get him on the school bus… I’m seeing changes in his behavior. He’s become more difficult, disruptive. He’s also communicating less with me and with his classmates,” she said. “I believe this is due to all the learning disruption.”

Fortunately, Carvalho already has a playbook for tackling this issue, spurred in part by standardized test results that showed LAUSD students lost approximately five years of academic ground during the pandemic.

A key part of his plan are two bonus “acceleration days” tacked on to each semester, that offer targeted learning support, the chance for students to raise their grades and engage in enrichment activities.

The first-ever set of days took place on Dec. 19 and 20 and had somewhat lackluster attendance of around 40,000 students. The second set of these days is just around the corner on April 3 and 4 and it will be interesting to see whether more families take advantage of them in the aftermath of the strike.

Other parts of Carvalho’s strategy to address learning loss include increased weekend, during school and after school tutoring as well as a new evening bus service to encourage more students to take advantage of after school programming.

UTLA and SEIU members picket at Avalon Gardens Steam Academy Elementary School in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 23, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer) What does this all mean for ongoing negotiations with the teachers union? In an email to its members on Friday, shortly after the district and SEIU announced they had reached a tentative agreement, UTLA touted its collective action with SEIU as a show of force and signaled that it’s prepared to ratchet up pressure on the district once more.

“Carvalho has been put on notice that he better move on our demands,” the memo stated. “If that movement is not enough to settle the contract that UTLA members deserve, we will move to the next round of this fight.”

UTLA is seeking a 20% salary increase over two years; lower class sizes; the hiring of additional nurses, librarians, counselors and other positions; and full funding of the Black Student Achievement Plan and the special education program, among other demands.

Chris Zepeda-Millán, chair of UCLA’s labor studies program, said “hands down” UTLA has the advantage at the moment.

Not only does UTLA have a larger war chest to sustain a longer strike than SEIU could, Zepeda-Millán said, there are more members of the school board endorsed by UTLA now than during the 2019 strike. And should UTLA reach the point of striking again, there’s a chance SEIU members will stage its own solidarity strike to return the favor to the teachers union for supporting it last week, he said.

“The district knows (the unions) can shut (schools) down pretty easily, and they just showed us,” Zepeda-Millán said. “That’s going to be on the back of both teams’ minds as they’re negotiating.”

What will this mean for the local and national labor movement? You can bet that workers in surrounding school districts, as well as other large urban districts throughout the country, will want more from their employers now, said Thomas Lentz, an adjunct professor at the USC Gould School of Law and a labor law attorney.

The union’s efforts last week were “transformational,” Lentz said, noting that even when it takes a while, walkouts — and the sacrifice of lost wages that go with them —  “can have a return on investment.”

“I will be expecting the local unions will be ramping up their demands, and the members who hear about this will be increasing their expectations because they know it can be done,” he said.

Experts also took particular note of teachers and others who joined with the service workers, who rarely strike.

The fact that teachers walked off the job in solidarity with striking service workers gave them a lot more power and leverage, said UCLA education professor John Rogers. In addition, politicians at city, state and federal levels spoke out in support of the strike.

Caring for students is one of the most meaningful careers.

I stand with the bus drivers, custodians, teachers aides and others of @SEIULocal99.

No one can live on $25,000. We must invest in schools and pay fair wages.

It’s time to support those who support our kids.

— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 21, 2023

“I think that each victory for organized labor sends a message to organized labor across the country in various different industry sectors,” Rogers said. “The most powerful messages will be sent to other similarly situated education workers, who will see the advantages of aligning with their teaching union and who will see that they can build power.”

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho addresses the media and families on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, at LAUSD’s iAttend Outreach Event at Compton Avenue Elementary STEAM Academy in Compton. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer) What’s next for Superintendent Carvalho? When Carvalho first arrived from Florida, a state where labor unions are relatively weaker, many wondered how he would fare in terms of navigating local school politics and unions here in L.A.

One action that angered district employees last month was a tweet the superintendent posted on Feb. 10, which read: “1,2,3…Circus = a predictable performance with a known outcome, desiring of nothing more than an applause, a coin, and a promise of a next show. Let’s do right, for once, without circus, for kids, for community, for decency. @LASchools”

SEIU members, who took a strike authorization vote that week, were offended, believing the superintendent was effectively calling them clowns.

“For members it demonstrated blatant and continued disrespect for their work and their right to take action to improve their livelihoods,” SEIU Local 99 spokesperson Blanca Gallegos said in an email.

On Friday, a district spokesperson said in a statement that people misunderstood the tweet.

“The tweet was deleted because it was misinterpreted as related to the SEIU Local 99 strike authorization,” the statement read. “Consequently, because the tweet was wrongly inferred as a maligning of our own employees, we determined it necessary to remove.”

In a follow-up interview, LAUSD spokesperson Shannon Haber said Carvalho was referencing “one of the many national issues happening in our country” at the time, though she would not specify the issue.

Although Carvalho’s image may have taken a hit in recent weeks due to ongoing labor strife, Zepeda-Millán said, the superintendent can turn things around.

If Carvalho could settle negotiations with UTLA and get the unions to join him in advocating with the governor and state Legislature for greater longterm investments in public education, he could help lead a statewide campaign that could win him points, Zepeda-Millán said.

“Carvalho has a chance to say, ‘I’m going to do things differently this time and let’s show the state and the country that if we have well-paid teachers, smaller class sizes – what all the research says works – we could have great public schools again,’” he said.

To be sure, Carvalho still has the support of many parents.

United Parents Los Angeles, a group which oftentimes is at odds with the teachers union, said in a statement that it’s “rooting” for Carvalho.

“Carvalho has been a much-needed student and academic oriented leader that has done a lot of community outreach. Many families feel that their kids are represented for the first time in years,” the statement said.

The group went on to say that for the district to combat enrollment drops and retain students, it must prioritize smaller class sizes and support schools by “trim(ming) the fat and redirect(ing) that spending” responsibly.

The school district is scheduled to return to the bargaining table with UTLA on Tuesday, according to the teachers union. And in less than a year, it will meet again with SEIU representatives to negotiate its next contract.

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Free Admission For LAUSD Students To LA Zoo If Strike Closes Schools March 21-23

The entrance to the Los Angeles Zoo on Feb. 16, 2021. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) Parents get an admission break at the Los Angeles Zoo if a strike by Service Employees International Union Local 99 workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District goes into effect this week.

The zoo will offer free admission to currently enrolled Los Angeles Unified School District students in grades K-12, with a $5 fee for an accompanying adult, on March 21-23.

Students need to show proof of enrollment by presenting their school identification card, report card, school newsletter, or similar proof of enrollment. Free admission will be offered only on days that LAUSD schools are impacted by the pending closures.

Tickets must be purchased in person at the  Zoo box office. This is offer is only good for Tuesday-Thursday this week. Tickets are not available online.

The zoo is also offering a “Community Safari Day” program for children in grades K-5. The Learning and Engagement staff at the zoo will lead activities and crafts about for students, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. March 21-23. Extended morning (8-9 a.m.) and afternoon (4-5) hours will also be offered with paid registration. Admission will be $50 per student. Online advance registration is required. In the event that school closures end, any fees paid for future dates will be refunded. No refunds will be permitted for other individual cancellations. Register here:

Regular zoo admission is $22 for adults and $17 for children ages 2-12.

Los Angeles Zoo is located at 5333 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles. 323-644-4200.

Holly Andres | Editorial assistant and calendar editor Holly Andres has been editorial assistant and calendar editor since 1997 for the Los Angeles Daily News. She graduated from Cal State Northridge with a history degree.

Picket Lines Announced For Tuesday As Hope Fades For Strike-Averting LAUSD Deal

Union officials representing service workers for the Los Angeles Unified School District on Sunday, March 19, announced planned picket lines as hopes fade for a last-minute deal to avoid a potentially crippling strike that would shut down campuses for three days starting Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a group of district employees, parents and students took to the streets outside the district headquarters Saturday to emphasize their concerns about the size of classes and a “living wage” for the non teaching staffers who are expected to be on the picket lines starting this week.

Officials for the Service Employees International Local 99 union —representing roughly 30,000 cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and other workers — said Saturday they were “moving forward with plans to strike” Tuesday through Thursday to “protest the school district’s unfair practices.”

The union’s announcement came one day after the district filed a legal challenge with the state Public Employment Relations Board seeking an injunction that would halt the strike, alleging that it is illegal. The challenge questions the legality of the labor action and cites the timing, which would occur before the typical bargaining procedure has been completed.

It is unclear if or when the board will consider the request.

“Yesterday, even as the school district filed charges, they presented SEIU Local 99 with an updated contract offer,” the union said Saturday. “Members of our bargaining team had not even had time to review it or consult with other members before the district shared it publicly with the media. We will not negotiate publicly.

“LAUSD does not seem to be acting in good faith.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said LAUSD officials were prepared to talk, and even potentially sweeten their most recent compensation and benefits offer, but union officials said they are waiting for a state mediator to schedule new talks.

Meanwhile, the district has scheduled a series of 90 minute Zoom webinars on Sunday and Monday for students and their families to learn more about what is happening.

Information on the scheduled sessions is available at

The union announced the following events planned for next week:


— 4:30 a.m. picket lines at Van Nuys Bus Yard, 16200 Roscoe Blvd.

— 7 a.m. news conference at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, 701 S. Catalina St., Los Angeles;

— 1 p.m. rally at LAUSD Headquarters, 333 South Beaudry Ave., Los Angeles.


— 4:30 a.m. picket lines at Gardena Bus Yard, 18421 S. Hoover St.;

— 7 a.m. news conference and picketing at Polytechnic High School, 12431 Roscoe Blvd., Sun Valley;

— 11 a.m. rally at LAUSD Local District Office, 2151 N. Soto St., Los Angeles.


— 4:30 a.m. picket lines at BD Bus Yard 774 E. 17th St., Los Angeles;

— 7 a.m. news conference and picket lines at Banneker Career Transition Center, 14024 San Pedro St., Los Angeles;

— 1 p.m. rally at location to be determined.

Carvalho said the union is “simply refusing to negotiate,” calling it “deeply surprising and disappointing that there is an unwillingness to do so.”

The district was scheduled to engage in labor talks Friday — not with the SEIU but with United Teachers Los Angeles, the powerful teachers’ union, which has said its 30,000-plus members will honor an SEIU picket line. UTLA is pushing for a 20% raise for its workers. SEIU is seeking roughly 30%, saying many of its workers are paid poverty wages of about $25,000 per year.

The planned three-day walkout would be the first major labor disruption for the district since UTLA teachers went on strike for six days in 2019. That dispute ended thanks in part to intervention by then-Mayor Eric Garcetti, who helped spur labor talks at City Hall and broker a deal between the district and union.

Zach Seidl, a spokesman for Mayor Karen Bass, said Friday that Bass is “closely monitoring the situation and is engaged with all parties involved.”

District officials said last week that Carvalho had made the SEIU Local 99 “one of the strongest offers ever proposed by a Los Angeles Unified superintendent.”

According to the district, the offer included a 5% wage increase retroactive to July 2021, another 5% increase retroactive to July 2022 and another 5% increase effective July 2023, along with a 4% bonus in 2022-23 and a 5% bonus in 2023-24.

On Wednesday, Carvalho said at a news conference “that 15% plus 10% does not represent the end of the road, we have more resources and have indicated that to the union.”

The union announced Wednesday at a rally at Grand Park that its strike will begin Tuesday. SEIU-represented workers voted in February to authorize the union to call a strike if negotiations failed.

Carvalho sent a message to district parents and staff Monday saying that a walkout by more than 60,000 workers would likely mean a closure of all schools in the district.

“We would simply have no way of ensuring a safe and secure environment where teaching can take place,” Carvalho said. “We will give you as much advance notice as possible, but we encourage you to begin discussions with your employer, child care providers and others now.”

Carvalho on Wednesday lamented the possibility of a strike that could shutter schools — on the heels of extended campus closures that impacted student learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What are the consequences? The consequences are once again learning loss, deprivation of safety and security that schools provide to our kids, deprivation of food and nutrition that many of our kids depend on,” Carvalho said. “I know that we focus our attention on the needs of the workforce. I need to focus my attention also primarily on the needs of our kids.”

The unions have repeatedly said the district is sitting on a projected $4.9 billion reserve fund for 2022-23 that should be invested in workers and efforts to improve education through reduced class sizes and full staffing of all campuses.

“Workers are fed-up with living on poverty wages — and having their jobs threatened for demanding equitable pay. Workers are fed-up with the short staffing at LAUSD — and being harassed for speaking up,” SEIU99 Executive Director Max Arais said in a statement last week.

Carvalho has disputed that $4.9 billion figure, telling ABC7 Thursday that an auditor who reviewed the district’s books concluded such a reserve fund is a “falsehood.”

The superintendent said he remains hopeful a strike can be avoided, but if it happens, the district plans to provide food-distribution centers for students and provide educational packets students can work on at home during the walkout.

The district on Friday announced the creation of a website at which will “provide resources for families during the work stoppage period” from Tuesday through Thursday. According to the district, the site has information on “learning activities, Grab & Go food locations, tutoring services, enrichment activities and cultural opportunities across Los Angeles and Los Angeles County park locations that will provide free youth programs.”

SEIU workers have been working without a contract since June 2020.

The union declared an impasse in negotiations in December, leading to the appointment of a state mediator.

In addition to salary demands, union officials have also alleged staffing shortages caused by an “over-reliance on a low-wage, part-time workforce.” The union alleged shortages including:

— insufficient teacher assistants, special education assistants and other instructional support to address learning loss and achievement gaps;

— substandard cleaning and disinfecting at school campuses because of a lack of custodial staff;

— jeopardized campus safety due to campus aides and playground supervisors being overburdened, and,

— limited enrichment, after-school and parental engagement programs due to reduced work hours and lack of health care benefits for after-school workers and community representatives.

Are Southern California Students And Teachers Breathing Clean Air?

Tina Andres hates the red light. And this time, it’s not even blinking. It’s just solid red, as in, change-the-filter-now red.

The air purifier in teacher Andres’ classroom at MacArthur Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana was installed in 2021. But the first time the light went red no new filters could be found, a result of supply chain woes. Now, about two months after installing a replacement, the warning signal is back.

Andres, a sixth-grade math teacher who’s taught in the same class, Room 7, for 30 years, said the air problem isn’t just about COVID-19.

“We have mold issues,” she said. “There are issues like this all over the county. Some of these schools are old.

“Teachers just want to know that the air quality is good,” she added.

An air filter is seen in a first-grade class on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, at Resurrection School in Los Angeles. Indoor air quality has been an increasing focus for the past three decades, but took off during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Teachers at MacArthur Intermediate in Santa Ana got new air purifiers during the pandemic. But when their red lights popped up indicating a need to change the filter, there were no replacements to be found. This air purifier in Room 7 at MacArthur saw its filter replaced during the winter holiday. It’s back to red. Photo taken on Friday, Dec. 3, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Tina Andres)

The issue isn’t trivial, or misunderstood. Studies have linked dirty air inside of schools — particularly in communities with dirty air outside of schools — to a variety of health conditions and learning delays. It’s also known that a proven, cost-effective way to clean up school air is to improve a school’s ventilation system.

California has been a leader in recognizing this. Even before COVID-19 prompted everybody to think about ventilation, California imposed rules aimed at making sure new school buildings offered clean air. And on Jan. 1, California became the first state to require every school, regardless of age, to assess and, if feasible, to upgrade their ventilation systems.

The mandate has come after billions of state and federal dollars, mostly related to the pandemic, were made available to schools to improve their air quality. Los Angeles Unified now spends about $20 million a year to inspect and maintain more than 115,000 air filtration systems.

Still, a new national study from the Environmental Law Institute suggests it isn’t enough. California, as with other states, has substantial room for improvement when it comes to making school air safe, the study found.

The study cites many of the issues also raised by Andres, as well as other teachers, parents and environmental advocates.

For starters, there’s no centralized agency to oversee school indoor air quality. State and local air quality districts focus on outdoor air, so questions about indoor air often bounce between various state departments and local agencies. School districts are left to inspect and police themselves.

Also, loopholes in the new state law allow many schools — particularly older campuses, which often serve the neediest students — to avoid meeting the new standards if they don’t have heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC systems, at all, or if their systems aren’t strong enough to push air through upgraded filters. A number of Southern California school districts reached for comment on this story, from Big Bear to Pomona to East Whitter, either didn’t respond or simply said they had no news to share about work to improve ventilation.

Meanwhile, international health groups are calling for indoor air rules even more strict than what’s called for in California’s new law. To get there, districts would need to boost ventilation and add tools, such as portable air purifiers, in all classrooms — something few have done.

Now, as funding and concern about COVID-19 fades, school plans to fix the problem are starting to fall by the wayside.

Some $50 million in federal funding that L.A. Unified School District budgeted for portable air purifiers a couple years ago has been reassigned, according to Rebecca Schenker, who has two kids in the district and helps lead a group called LAUSD Parents for Covid-Safe Schools. She hasn’t been able to find out how that money will now be spent.

Her fear is that, as the COVID-19 emergency declaration ends and people move on, the funding, equipment and knowledge gained over the past three years won’t translate into long-term efforts to clean up school air — despite ongoing problems with absenteeism and air pollution.

“The need to figure out how to move forward in this world, after the trauma of COVID and damage, is real,” Schenker said. “But I think we’re saying in our coalition that we can’t do that by forgetting the lessons we learned during the pandemic. And while we’re not in a pandemic mode, we know more about how to take care of our communities. And we know we have the tools.”

Long-standing need While California has set standards for outdoor air quality since the late 1950s, public policy didn’t expand to include indoor air quality in earnest until the early 1990s. That’s when the Environmental Law Institute started studying classroom ventilation, said Tobie Bernstein, a senior attorney with the group and director of its Indoor Environments Program.

“There was considerable evidence of potential adverse impacts of poor ventilation and indoor air quality,” Bernstein said.

Students and teachers in schools with poor ventilation are more likely to miss school and report health issues related to respiratory and viral infections, asthma symptoms and airborne diseases such as chickenpox and influenza, according to research by Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program. Meanwhile, studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and others show that better ventilation in schools also leads to better academic performance.

When Southern California Gas distributed portable air purifiers to all classrooms within five miles of a massive leak at the company’s Aliso Canyon storage in 2015, Michael Gilraine, an economics professor at New York University, saw an opportunity. He launched a study comparing student achievement in schools that didn’t get air filters and those that did, and he found substantial improvements in math and English scores for students breathing cleaner air.

“The results indicate that air filter installation is a highly cost-effective policy to raise student achievement,” Gilraine’s study says. “And, given that underprivileged students attend schools in highly polluted areas, one that can reduce the pervasive test score gaps that plague public education.”

Much of Southern California is plagued by poor outdoor air quality throughout the year, from Inland Empire schools near heavily trafficked freeways to Los Angeles County schools near the busy ports to all schools near airports. When outdoor air quality gets particularly bad, air quality officials recommend keeping kids inside. But Heejung Jung, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Riverside who studies air quality, has seen firsthand how problematic that is in schools without active ventilation systems.

Jung recalled measuring air quality of a classroom in Riverside some years back. Even with doors and windows closed, but no ventilation system, Jung said the concentration of harmful particles was 70% as high inside the classroom as it was outside.

Lower income school districts are most likely to have faulty, failing or nonexistent ventilation systems. At the same time, people of color are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions, such as asthma, that make them more vulnerable to pollutants in their classrooms, turning ventilation into a social justice issue.

Though fixing school ventilation isn’t cheap, advocates believe the investment of a few dollars per student more than pays for itself.

Schenker cites studies that more than 100,000 absences in LAUSD each year are attributed to asthma symptoms. Since schools get paid based on student attendance, that’s costing the district upwards of $4 million a year, which health research suggests could be improved by improving ventilation. Another California study estimated that poor ventilation was linked to at least 3% of absences, which cost the state $33 million each year.

In 2019, such research prompted California to become the first state to require HVAC filters for all new school construction at a level known as MERV 13, with dense enough filtration to catch at least 75% of particles in the air as small as 1 micron, or about a tenth the size of a droplet of mist.

But in January 2020, researchers published a study in the journal Building and Environment that found that there were problems with even newly installed HVAC equipment in more than half of the classrooms they looked at. Theresa Pistochini, a co-author of the study who helps lead UC Davis’ Energy Efficiency Institute and Western Cooling Efficiency Center, said that while those numbers were very concerning to her team, it was initially tough to get traction because teachers and students weren’t recognizing the effects.

“When you’re in a building that’s underventilated, you can’t really tell,” she said.

Then came spring 2020.

The COVID-19 factor As COVID-19 raged, and protection measures such as mask wearing and vaccinations became divisive, improving ventilation jumped out as relatively simple, non-intrusive way to significantly reduce the risk of transmission. Suddenly, the maintenance problems and other recommendations that Pistochini and her team had raised were getting attention.

Seventh-grade students at Pacific Pathways Prep Middle School in Sacramento, Calif. work on CR-Box filters that will go to low-income patients at the COPD clinic at UC Davis in collaboration with Dr. Brooks Kuhn. The outreach on Friday, March 3, 2023 was part of an ongoing effort to teach air quality principles and build awareness about ventilation. (Photos by Paul Fortunato of UC Davis)

Seventh-grade students at Pacific Pathways Prep Middle School in Sacramento, Calif. work on CR-Box filters that will go to low-income patients at the COPD clinic at UC Davis in collaboration with Dr. Brooks Kuhn. The outreach on Friday, March 3, 2023 was part of an ongoing effort to teach air quality principles and build awareness about ventilation. (Photos by Paul Fortunato of UC Davis)

Seventh-grade students at Pacific Pathways Prep Middle School in Sacramento, Calif. work on CR-Box filters that will go to low-income patients at the COPD clinic at UC Davis in collaboration with Dr. Brooks Kuhn. The outreach on Friday, March 3, 2023 was part of an ongoing effort to teach air quality principles and build awareness about ventilation. (Photos by Paul Fortunato of UC Davis)

The simplest way to improve air quality in classrooms, of course, is to open doors and windows. But there are classes across Southern California where that’s not possible. Also, everything from temperature to noise to public safety make the open-door-and-window policy less than ideal.

The second fix is to install stand-alone air cleaners, like the one in Andres’ class, in all classrooms and gathering spaces. Such devices can work, Pistochini said, because they can filter the smallest particles. But for portable air cleaners to be effective, they need to be sized right for the space, filters need to be regularly changed and they need to be turned on each day. That leaves a lot of room for user error.

That’s why the third fix is the one Pistochini focuses on — installing solid HVAC systems that bring in outdoor air, condition and filter it, and expel poor air out of the classroom.

There are schools in districts across Southern California, including in Torrance Unified and Westminster, that don’t have full HVAC systems in place. Westminster recently tapped a $76 million bond measure to start to tackle that issue. Manuel Cardoso, assistant superintendent for business services, said five of the district’s 16 schools now have new air HVAC systems, while nine others are nearly done or scheduled for similar upgrades in the summer. Two others, he said, have temporary HVAC systems.

For districts with existing HVAC systems, most had been running MERV 6 or 8 filters, which don’t work well against COVID-19 transmission. That’s why Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, last year introduced Assembly Bill 2232. The bill, which took effect Jan. 1, requires all California schools to evaluate their ventilation systems and upgrade to MERV 13 filtration if “feasible.” Otherwise, they have to install the highest MERV level filtration their systems can take.

While that law does give districts wiggle room to decide whether their systems can handle MERV 13 filtration, Pistochini said most HVAC systems can pivot to MERV 13.

But Jesse Chavarria, assistant superintendent of administrative services for Anaheim Elementary School District, said not only were MERV 13 hard to find at one point during the pandemic, he said they also didn’t work in older HVAC units in the district.

“In those situations, the law says we have to find ways to find the same air quality,” Chavarria said. “So we used three-ply filters and sprayed them with an antimicrobial agent used by hospitals.”

Orange Unified also is treating all its HVAC units, which have MERV 8 filters, with an antimicrobial solution — in addition to buying portable air purifiers with HEPA filters, said district spokeswoman Hanna Brake.

Paying for progress While some districts already were working to upgrade their HVAC systems and filtration, both AB 2232 and the recent flood of state and federal funding for improvements kicked those efforts into high gear.

“Covid was a bad thing but getting the Covid funds did help out in terms of improving the ventilation systems,” said Chavarria, from the Anaheim Elementary district.

Most California schools now have access to a pool of money specifically designated for HVAC work. Through a program called CalSHAPE, created in 2020 by Assembly Bill 814, schools can apply for a share of $584 million in grants. To date, about $382 million has been doled out for ventilation projects, with applications for the latest round of funding open through March 31.

That’s on top of $190.5 billion in federal funds approved by Congress to help schools cope with the pandemic. The California Department of Education said that as of Feb. 15, school districts in the state were planning to use $1.6 billion of that money for 951 approved HVAC projects.

L.A. Unified installed MERV 13 filters across 80 million square feet of buildings and classrooms. At the onset of COVID-19, the district also programmed HVAC systems to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when heating or cooling is not required. And they used $2.4 million to buy 2,750 portable HEPA air-cleaning devices, which can be deployed during COVID-19 surges or if an HVAC system goes down.

Riverside Unified School District used ESSER funds to do HVAC replacement at two high schools, four middle schools and nine elementary schools, according to district spokesperson Diana Meza. The district also added MERV 13 filters in all classrooms and now changes them quarterly.

In Capistrano Unified, Orange County’s largest school district, spokesman Ryan Burris said ESSER funds were used to upgrade all HVAC systems to MERV 13 rated filters. In cases where ventilation still was not meeting minimum standards, he said the district purchased stand-alone units to supplement ventilation rates. The district also received CalSHAPE funds to assess HVAC systems at all sites and plans to apply for additional grant money through that program to replace systems that were found deficient.

San Bernardino City Unified School District used a combination of ESSER and district general funds to purchase HEPA filter units, assess HVAC systems and upgrade the HVAC filters, spokesperson Corina Borsuk said. As a result of those efforts, she said many of the district’s classrooms now exceed the international ventilation exchange rate guidelines.

“It’s not enough to just purchase equipment and leave it at that,” Borsuk said. “We want to make sure we are making a measurable difference for our students’ health and make sure that the investment of public funds is getting results.” So she said the district also contracted with an industrial hygienist to perform pre- and post-tests on air samples for all classrooms.

More work needed Air sampling and circulation testing is key, according to Michael Bailey with the national parent group Indoor Air Care Advocates. When asked what they’re doing to improve air quality in schools, he said many districts focus on upgrades they’ve made to HVAC filtration or how many air purifiers they’ve added.

But, Bailey said, knowing that doesn’t indicate “how much clean air they’re providing.”

One way California is working on that is by requiring schools that receive money through CalSHAPE to install carbon dioxide monitors in all classrooms, which will alert staff and students if CO2 levels go above 1,100 parts per million. And if that happens more than once a week, the school will have to adjust ventilation rates. (The 2022 law, AB 2232, also requires new and altered school buildings to install CO2 monitors.)

Pistochini praised those efforts, since it gives teachers and students and parents hard data. Otherwise, districts are left to police themselves.

“What’s at stake here is exposure to respiratory infectious disease, exposure to indoor chemical sources, and exposure to outdoor pollution. And children are our most sensitive population. So if there’s ever a place we’re gonna get this right, let’s do it in a school and through a third-party inspection system.”

Other states already do that. West Virginia, for example, hires HVAC technicians to conduct inspections, per the Environmental Law Institute report. And if we can have regular inspections for every restaurant in the state, Pistochini said surely we can do the same for schools.

At Santa Ana Unified, teacher Andres said she and her colleagues want to see more information from the district.

“I want to see regular testing and reports of air quality given to teachers about their rooms, and we want some assurances that these air purifiers are working and that they’re going to be regularly maintained,” said Andres, a member of the school’s safety committee.

Otherwise, she said, “There’s this big huge thing in your room that’s worthless.”

Temecula Leaders Turning Right As Critics Try To Slam The Brakes

Like it or not, the culture wars are on Temecula’s agenda.

While the southwest Riverside County city of 110,000 has long been conservative, the leadership of Temecula’s city council and school board has veered further right in recent months, wading into matters like race, abortion and whether to recognize the LGBTQ community that go beyond the nuts and bolts of local government.

The council no longer declares events such as Black History Month and considered banning abortion, while Temecula Valley Unified School District trustees prohibited the teaching of so-called critical race theory to the district’s 28,000 students.

Past city councils rarely dealt with matters beyond their control, said Jeff Comerchero, who served on Temecula’s council from 1997 to 2018.

“Whenever somebody would mention ‘We should take a stand on something,’ everybody else pushed back because it wasn’t our place to go there,” he said. “Every level of government has their responsibilities and those things simply were not ours.”

Temecula Valley Unified School District board President Joseph Komrosky, second from right, and others listen during a Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, school board meeting in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Temecula Valley Unified School District board President Joseph Komrosky speaks Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, during a meeting at district headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Temecula Valley Unified School District board member Danny Gonzalez speaks Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, during a meeting at district headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Temecula Valley Unified School District board member Jennifer Wiersma speaks Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, during a meeting at district headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Temecula Valley Unified School District board member Allison Barclay speaks Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at a board meeting at district headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Temecula Valley Unified School District board member Steven Schwartz is seen Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, during a meeting at district headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Temecula Valley Unified School District board members meet Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at district h headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Julie Geary, a teacher and member of Temecula Unity, is seen Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in front of Temecula City Hall. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Teacher and Temecula activist Julie Geary, of Temecula Unity, is seen in front of Temecula City Hall on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Teacher and Temecula activist Julie Geary, of Temecula Unity, is seen in front of Temecula City Hall on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Few people attended the Temecula Valley Unified School District board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at district headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Temecula Valley Unified School District Superintendent Jodi McClay speaks Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, to the board during a meeting at district headquarters in Temecula. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Julie Geary, a member of Temecula Unity, is seen Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in front of Temecula City Hall. Recent actions by the Temecula City Council and school board have fueled a showdown between the city’s liberals and conservatives. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG).

But now, the board’s and council’s latest moves have critics fearing what might happen to the city and highly ranked school district they love.

“I see social media posts from people who are looking to move to Temecula and it’s hard to respond,” Christine Massa, a 19-year Temecula resident, said via email. “It’s ugly at the moment.”

In November, three candidates backed by a Christian conservative political action committee won a majority on the school board and a first-time conservative candidate unseated longtime Temecula City Councilmember Maryann Edwards.

In its first meeting, the school board majority — Joseph Komrosky, Danny Gonzalez and Jen Wiersma — banned critical race theory, a term for a college-level course of study that conservatives use to attack K-12 lessons on slavery and U.S. race relations.

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Conservative media outlets hailed the move, which earned Komrosky and Wiersma airtime on Fox News. Hundreds of Temecula high school students, outraged with what they saw as the board’s whitewashing of historical truths, walked out of class in December and January.

Gonzalez described his vote on the critical race theory resolution as “intended to be precautionary.”

“The definition of CRT is rarely agreed upon. It was my viewpoint that because the resolution described in such detail, most of the (tenets) of CRT that many find problematic, it would help to clarify what is meant when referring to CRT,” he said in an email.

“While we as a board continue to evaluate this issue, we will address what goes on in the classroom in an honest and open way that ensures teaching real history while being mindful not to perpetuate an adult’s political agenda into the young minds of our students.”

Wiersma also defended her critical race theory vote.

“I am NOT about canceling history, marginalizing students or whitewashing the content of their education,” she said via email. “My proactive stance on CRT pedagogy will help ensure the correct choice for future ethnic studies material and other curricula.”

In January, the council voted 3-2 — Brenden Kalfus, who beat Edwards in November, sided with the majority — to stop issuing citywide proclamations recognizing months like Black History Month that celebrate cultural diversity, women’s history or the LGBTQ community.

Instead, the council left it up to Temecula’s 2-year-old diversity commission to designate such months. It recognized Black History Month on Feb. 9.

In September, the council rejected a pro-life resolution that would have declared Temecula a sanctuary city for the unborn.

Months earlier, Councilmember Jessica Alexander, the resolution’s sponsor, blasted a council proclamation honoring LGBTQ Pride Month. Alexander, who has opposed the diversity commission, has said Pride Month goes against her faith and values and that such proclamations create more division and “do nothing to contribute to the running of our city.”

Rallied through social media, school board supporters clad in red — — “Saving America starts with (the) school board,” proclaimed one red T-shirt — and critics wearing blue have faced off at recent board meetings. Both sides cheered and applauded comments they liked as sheriff’s deputies kept the peace.

City still red, but not as much

What’s happening in Temecula isn’t unique.

School boards and city councils nationwide have become battlegrounds in a sharply divided political climate in which the other side isn’t just wrong — it’s the enemy.

Schools in congressional districts that voted for Donald Trump, who won Temecula in 2016 and 2020, were most likely to see efforts to limit or challenge instruction on race and LGBTQ rights and ban certain library books, John Rogers, a UCLA professor who co-wrote a study on how political conflicts affect public education, said via email.

Temecula isn’t new to culture clashes.

In 2010, the council approved plans to build a new mosque after a public hearing that ended after 3 a.m. and protests where mosque opponents brought their dogs to antagonize Muslims.

That same year, officials faced cries of censorship after removing a portrait of a nude woman from a city-run theater. In 1995, Residents protested the showing of the NC-17-rated movie “Showgirls” in a Temecula movie theater and, in 2008, criticized a charity performance of the play, “The Vagina Monologues.”

While California is a blue state and Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in Riverside County, Temecula has long been a GOP haven. The city’s Ronald Reagan Sports Park, which features a statue of the former president and conservative icon, became a rallying point for a 60-mile caravan of Trump supporters in 2020.

While there remain more Republicans than Democrats in Temecula, the gap is narrowing. In 2005, 55% of Temecula voters were Republican, compared to 23% for Democrats. In late 2002, 38% were Republican; 31% were Democratic.

The city’s also become more diverse. In 2010, 70% of Temecula residents were White. That fell to 55% by 2020, and Rogers said the percentage of White students in Temecula schools dropped from 72% in 2000 to 42% in 2020.

Events of 2020 motivated left, right Temecula’s growing diversity — and sensitivity to it — was on display in at least two Black Lives Matter protests in the city in 2020.

At an event by the progressive group Temecula Unity that year, Massa said she “was particularly struck by one story … about a Black family who didn’t feel particularly welcome in (their) own neighborhood — my neighborhood.”

Around the same time, Temecula conservatives may have had their own awakening.

As the pandemic ushered in remote learning, “a lot of parents became aware of some of the things that were being taught in school and things that maybe they found objectionable,” said Rick Reiss, a Temecula conservative and frequent speaker at council meetings. “I think it kind of created an impetus for change.”

Gonzalez said his school board journey started when he wanted to address parents’ concerns during the pandemic’s early days and that led to a group that urged him to run.

Last spring, Inland Empire Family PAC, with the help of conservative Pastor Tim Thompson of 412 Church Temecula Valley, endorsed and bankrolled seven candidates, including Komrosky, Gonzalez and Wiersma, for southwest Riverside County school boards. Five won seats in the Temecula Valley, Murrieta Valley and Lake Elsinore school districts.

Under pressure to provide better opportunities for minority candidates, Temecula’s school board and the council started electing leaders by districts — as opposed to having candidates run in the entire city or school district — in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

That made it easier for groups like the family PAC, said John Hunneman, a retired southwest Riverside County reporter and columnist who lives in Murrieta.

“There are areas (in Temecula) that might be more conservative or areas where you could rally people, whether it’s with a church or with a social group,” he said. “And they don’t need to get that many votes (to win a seat) because they’re only campaigning in a fifth of the city.”

When should council get political? Until recently, Temecula’s five-member council wasn’t a partisan hotbed.

When he was on the council, Comerchero said: “There were times when I didn’t have any idea what political party one of my colleagues (was registered with), and they didn’t care. None of us did.”

The council’s focus, he said, was on the issues it could control, such as maintaining roads and parks and funding police and firefighters.

James “Stew” Stewart, who was elected to the council in 2016, said the council shouldn’t weigh in on national issues because it’s “a nonpartisan body with no power to change (those issues).” But it’s a matter of free speech if a councilmember wants to speak from the dais on those matters, he said via email.

Kalfus, a self-described conservative, said via email that whether the council should step into outside politics depends on several factors. 

“If the social issue or national political topic pertains particularly to something occurring within our city limits, then it may be appropriate for (the) council to weigh in.”

Alexander did not respond to requests for comment.

City’s direction cheered, feared Temecula’s residents are divided on what’s happening.

“This isn’t like Republican or Democrat,” Temecula Unity activist Julie Geary said. “This is someone that is trying to tell someone else how to live their life versus the freedom for people to live their life how they want to.”

Jeff Pack, a Temecula resident and co-founder of One Temecula Valley PAC, said he’s worried the council’s and board’s actions “will have long-lasting effects on our city’s reputation, economy and educational opportunities for our kids.”

“Elected officials at the city and school board levels are not elected to be moral, religious or political leaders. They are elected to do the business of the cities and the school districts,” he said via email. “Clearly, some of the recently elected have misunderstood what their roles are.”

Gonzalez said his Christian faith “does not disqualify me from being a school board member and simply being Christian doesn’t mean I would support any sort of a theocratic regime in our school district.”

“It does mean I have faith in God and, like many other people of faith in our community, I consider my faith when making decisions in all aspects of my life,” he said.

Gonzalez said he’s been accused of belonging to far-right groups and called a “white nationalist, racist, bigot, and many other disgusting accusations … I disavow these labels and I will not apologize for having faith in God.”

Gonzalez said he, Komrosky and Wiersma “wholeheartedly reject the notion that supporting a parent’s right to decide when and where adults other than themselves discuss sex and sexuality with their children will lead to marginalizing LGBTQ students.

“In fact, one might say that these critics intend to marginalize the three of us, as well as other students, for our faith.”

Komrosky did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked if she’s worried about Temecula becoming divided, Wiersma said people never agree on everything and “differences in opinion can be constructive and help improve our community and its public education system.”

Geary said she’s been called “a groomer (and) a pedophile” on social media. Despite the backlash, she said she’s not leaving Temecula.

“We’ve had so many kids in (the school district) rise up on their own (and find) their voice (and they’re) making these amazing posts on Instagram … to fight for the change that they believe in,” she said.

“So in this fight, there’s so much beauty … and that’s not gonna change. Once you open the can, you can’t put that back in.”