W. Covina School Board Takes Heat : Teachers File Suit Over Pay Raise While Protest of Closures Goes On

Times Staff Writer

Claiming that they were shortchanged by this year’s pay raise, teachers have filed a lawsuit against the troubled West Covina Unified School District, which has been beset by protests over its decision earlier this year to close four schools.

District officials denied that the 3% increase violated the terms of the teachers’ three-year contract and said that if the teachers’ suit prevails, it will cost the district $200,000.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 15, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 15, 1988 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 10 Page 2 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
A caption in Thursday’s San Gabriel Valley section incorrectly identified Wescove Elementary School as one of four schools that will be closed by the West Covina Unified School District. The board had considered closing either Wescove, Orangewood or California elementary school, but has since indicated that it will try to avoid closing another school.

The school board discussed the suit in closed session at its meeting Tuesday night. At the same meeting, it accepted a $3-million cash bid for the El Dorado Elementary School site.

Despite the lawsuit and renewed opposition over the decision to close the schools, officials say they are moving steadily toward bringing the financially strapped district back into the black.


First Installment

If escrow on the school sale closes as expected July 1, the district may be able to use the proceeds to pay the first installment of a $3.3-million bail-out loan from the state.

Before the meeting, about 75 people picketed outside the district office, protesting the school closures.

“This is really beginning to be a roller-coaster,” said Supt. Jane D. Gawronski, noting the district’s turbulent fortunes.

“It’s up and down,” said school board President Joe Mount, who was elected in November after the deficit was made public. Mount and board member William J. Brutocao, who was also elected in November, are the targets of a recall drive mounted by disgruntled parents.

“We knew there were going to be a lot of tough decisions . . . but I think there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Mount said.

Forced to Borrow

The district has been beset by financial problems since the 1986-87 school year, when it was forced to borrow the $3.3 million from the state to cover a deficit.


After months of turmoil, the board decided in February to turn Edgewood High School into a middle school and close Hollencrest and Willowood intermediate schools and Cortez Elementary school to cut costs for the 1988-89 school year.

It was that decision, which ran counter to a district advisory board’s recommendation, that spawned the recall efforts and community opposition.

On Monday, district officials were notified of the lawsuit over the raise teachers got for the current school year.

The teachers, represented by the California Teachers Assn. and the Teachers Assn. of West Covina, say they should have received a 4.65% increase for this school year instead of the 3% they got. Charles R. Gustafson, the attorney representing the teachers, said the issue will probably come before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in June, although no court date has been set.


Complex Formula

According to the three-year contract’s complicated triggering formula, which ties salaries to district revenue, teachers would receive a maximum increase of 6% if district revenues rose by at least that much. If revenues rose by less than 6%, lottery funds would be added to determine teachers’ raises.

In the two previous years covered by the contract, teachers received 6% increases.

The teachers contend that the district calculated revenues for the first two years without including lottery funds. However, in computing revenues for this year, the district added lottery funds to the revenue totals for the two previous years. Because general revenues were down this year and lottery funds were included in calculating the two previous years’ base figure, total revenues increased only enough to justify a 3% raise, according to the district.


The teachers contend that if the lottery funds had not been added to the two previous years’ revenue total--which they say was forbidden by the contract--their raise would have been calculated at 4.65%.

H. C. Tanner, the assistant superintendent for business services who assumed management of the district’s budget in October, confirmed that he included lottery funds in calculating increases.

Regarding the El Dorado School sale, Mount said those proceeds could ease next year’s budget problems and be used to repair the district’s remaining schools. Gawronski has estimated that the district needs to cut $2.7 million from its budget to balance the books.

But before the money from school sales can be used, the district must receive approval from the State Allocations Board on May 25. Such funds usually must go to pay off bond obligations.


Lewis Homes Management Corp. of Upland made the high bid on the 10-acre El Dorado site on Azusa Avenue near Cortez Street. The bid is higher than the board’s minimum price of $2.5 million but substantially lower than the $8.5-million bid the district accepted in April for the Tonopah Elementary School site.

Unlike the Tonopah sale, which will be paid off in installments over four years, Lewis Homes must come up with the $3 million by July 1, Tanner said. He said he does not foresee any problems in closing the deal on time.

Cash Deal

School officials had hoped to get more money for the El Dorado site, but the district’s desire for a cash deal and other factors reduced its appeal.


“If you’re looking for money quickly, you’re going to sacrifice in price,” Brutocao said. “I believe in the notion that you get your cash and close the deal.”

The protest outside the meeting Tuesday was organized by a group called Parents for Education, which is not affiliated with either the recall organizers or a group of parents called Fact Finders who have also questioned the board’s decisions.

“The closer we get to September, the worse it’s going to get,” said Walter Lazenby, a protester whose child attends West Covina High School.

“We know that the state loan has to be repaid,” he said. “The only thing we ask is that they don’t devastate the children’s education to repay that money.”


Moving Too Fast

Lazenby said the district had to close some schools to avoid another deficit, but argued that the board was moving too fast and harming the students’ education with radical changes.

“A bad decision was made,” he said. “Just because they made that bad decision, they won’t change their minds.”

At last month’s board meeting, Stanley Oswalt, who was appointed by the state to oversee the district’s financial recovery, admonished the board for wasting time debating the public over a decision it had already made. The board then reaffirmed its closure decision and told the audience that it would move ahead to implement the changes.


Caroline Cardinas, whose son attends Edgewood High, said Tuesday that the decision to close schools was arbitrary and that the board’s reluctance to discuss the move further indicated discomfort in defending it.

‘Like a Parent’

“They have nothing to substantiate their decision,” she said. “It’s like a parent saying the decision has been made and that’s it. They don’t want to talk about it.”

Donald and Mary Davis, whose daughter, Angela, has a learning disability and attends a county special education class at West Covina High, voiced concern about her future. Because the consolidation will displace the special classes, Angela will have to attend classes at a campus outside the West Covina district, the Davises said the district told them.


“The problem is moving her from an environment she’s been in,” said Donald Davis. “I don’t understand why they can’t keep both (high schools) open.”

Mount said he sympathized with those upset over the closure decision but argued that the moves were needed to put the district on firm financial footing and ensure quality education. The protesters, he said, were motivated by emotion.

“The bottom line in understanding the protesters is that they can be supportive as long as it (consolidation) doesn’t close ‘my school,’ ” Mount said. “Take care of the problem, but don’t impact me.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board also approved laying off four teachers, one school nurse and one psychologist next year. Originally, the district notified 21 teachers that they might be laid off, but the number was cut by retirements, reassignments and attrition.