LAUSD strike: What does special ed aide want from district?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

Los Angeles school workers protest in front of Buchanan Street Elementary School during the first day of a walkout over contract negotiations, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 21, 2023. Photo by REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci.

Members of LAUSD’s service union (SEIU Local 99) and their supporters are on strike today. The service union includes bus drivers, custodians, special ed assistants, and other staff. The teachers union joined them in solidarity. That means campuses are closed for more than 400,000 LAUSD students for the next three days.

Local 99 is calling for higher pay and more full-time work for part-time employees.

At a news conference on Monday, LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he had hoped to avoid the planned three-day strike and come to an agreement with union officials, but it didn’t happen: “Despite our invitation for a transparent honest conversation that would perhaps result in a meaningful solution that would avoid a strike, we were never able to be in the same room, or at the same table to address these issues.”

In response, the head of the union, Max Arias, accused the district of negotiating in bad faith and needs to meet the union’s salary demands: “After nearly a year of bargaining, LAUSD has refused to offer wages that raise workers above the poverty line. We are on strike today because it’s our workers’ last resort.”

Yvette Ascencio is a special education assistant teacher at Winnetka Elementary in the San Fernando Valley and a member of SEIU Local 99.

“We joined the teachers in 2019. But it's different when it's yours and we're all in the same boat. Everybody's living paycheck to paycheck. … We're still at the same place we've been since day one,” she tells KCRW.

Daily, Ascencio helps her special education students on and off the bus, and is the primary assistant in a class of 16 kids, which she says is higher than they’re supposed to have.

“Our numbers keep on getting higher and higher, and we don't have the help we need. We have third, fourth, and fifth grade students in our class. And they all want them to be performing at grade level. And that's impossible because some of our kids don't know how to even read or write.”

She says when she started working 32 years ago, she was making $5.70 an hour.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I'm making more than the people that are on minimum wage.’ But as the years progressed, the load got heavier. And the pay stayed the same. Last year, I made $37,000 for the year.”

To help make ends meet, Ascencio took up a second job. But in 2015, she had a stroke while at school. “From that point on, everything changed because I could no longer have that second job. So I'm back like everybody else, living paycheck to paycheck and wondering how it's gonna be.”

A common misconception about her role as an aide is that she doesn’t contribute much to the classroom like a teacher. But she says she’s just as integral to the environment.

“What they don't realize is that we do work just as hard as a teacher, many teachers know we work hard. My teacher that I work for — she's wonderful. … Every decision she makes in the classroom, she always brings me on board and says, ‘What do you think?’ Because she knows that it's going to affect me. Because if she says yes, I'm right behind her, helping her pick up the slack.”

Ascencio understands how much the pandemic and being out of schools hurt students. But she says staff need support.

“When our children came back from the pandemic, they came back different children. Before the pandemic, they were more independent. Now they're very dependent on everybody. And then we have our superintendent who wants to make excuse after excuse [for] why he can't release some of the money.”

She adds, “Whatever happened to helping our fellow man? … Nobody helps each other out. It's always ‘me, me, me.’ … And I think that our kids are learning from that.”

She says the superintendent is making everything come down on teachers. And facing so much pressure without enough aide, many of them are quitting.

“If the teachers aren't happy, that trickles down to us, which we've been unhappy for many years, because we don't see a lot. We don't make a lot. … I know at least two assistants who live in their car from other schools. That's sad. … Where are the resources where they can get some housing? Everybody's worried about the homeless on the street? Well, let's worry about the person who's educating your child in the classroom.”