By Dan Whitcomb and Jane Ross
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - More than 30,000 Los Angeles teachers demanding pay raises and smaller classes walked off the job in America's second-largest school system on Monday, marching downtown in the rain after negotiations over a new contract broke down.
Students arriving for classes at some 900 campuses across the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were met by their teachers carrying picket signs in the city's first teachers' strike in three decades. The system educates some 640,000 students.
"It's an existential battle for the future of public education," teacher Mike Finn told Reuters outside John Marshall High School in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz.
Some 20,000 teachers, union members and supporters gathered outside City Hall, carrying umbrellas in a rare Southern California rainstorm and chanting as they prepared to march toward district headquarters. No end date has been given for the strike.
Officials for the district, which serves mostly working-class families who would struggle to find child care if classes were canceled, kept schools open, staffed by administrators and substitute teachers.
"This morning, buses rolled and breakfast was served. Los Angeles Unified schools are open and providing every student with a safe and welcoming learning environment," the LAUSD said on its Twitter account.
The walkout marks the latest in a wave of teachers' strikes across the United States over pay and school funding, including job actions in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona.
In Denver, a union representing teachers said it would hold a strike vote on Saturday if no deal on a new contract is reached by then.
But the strike by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) marks one of the largest and one of the few targeting a Democratic-controlled government. Los Angeles County officials say the union demands are unaffordable.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat weighing a run for his party's nomination in the 2020 presidential race, has largely avoided taking sides.
In a video posted to Twitter on Sunday, Garcetti urged the district and union to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
Union negotiators have demanded a 6.5 percent pay raise, more librarians, counselors and nurses on campuses, smaller class sizes and less testing, as well as a moratorium on new charter schools.
The district has countered with a proposed 6 percent salary hike with back pay and a $100 million investment to hire more staff and decrease class sizes.
Talks broke down on Friday evening with union leaders saying they were "insulted" by the latest offer from district officials. The two sides did not meet over the weekend.
Los Angeles County School Superintendent Austin Beutner said Friday's offer to teachers was beefed up after newly-installed California Governor Gavin Newsom increased education spending in his proposed budget.
"This impasse is disrupting the lives of too many kids and their families. I strongly urge all parties to go back to the negotiating table and find an immediate path forward that puts kids back into classrooms and provides parents certainty," Newsom said in a written statement on Monday.
County officials have said UTLA's demands would bankrupt the district.
"Our commitment to our families is to make sure all of the money we have is being spent in schools. We are doing that," Beutner said in a statement on Friday. "We hope UTLA leadership will reconsider its demands, which it knows Los Angeles Unified cannot meet."
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Jane Ross in Los Angeles, additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Grant McCool and Bill Berkrot)