The Los Angeles schools superintendent and the president of the local teachers’ union had a rare one-on-one public debate Friday and surprised their audience by politely agreeing on as many education issues as divides them in the current tense atmosphere of a threatened strike.
Supt. Leonard Britton and United Teachers-Los Angeles chief Wayne Johnson laid out their differences on how much the school district can afford for a teachers’ pay raise. They also sharply disagreed on the union’s bargaining tactic, announced on Thursday, to not file mid-term grades with district offices next month.
But both conceded that the other wants to improve education in Los Angeles and wants to avoid a strike. They presented similar philosophies in support of bilingual education and giving more autonomy to individual schools and against federal suggestions that students be allowed to attend any school they want in a district.
Such comity apparently befuddled audience members who knew that the teachers’ union has asked for Britton’s removal from office.
“I think you have more in common than divides you,” said David Abel, who was co-moderator of the forum attended by 50 people and held at the mid-Wilshire headquarters of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. The federation sponsored the event with the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
In remarks to reporters later, Johnson said he did not think the differences between the union and the district are great enough to trigger a strike “unless the district is on a suicide mission.”
“It works both ways,” Britton countered. “I wake up every morning thinking there must be an approach to head this thing off.”
Salary Key Issue
The most troublesome issue is pay. The district is offering its 32,000 teachers a raise of 20% over three years. The union wants 21% over two years. The dispute is expected to go to formal fact-finding within a few weeks, the last step before teachers legally can strike.
The plan to give students unofficial report cards on April 7 would not hurt the youngsters and would be a good way, short of a strike, to keep pressure on the school board, Johnson said. He insisted that students would not be hurt.
Britton, however, disagreed. He said that guidance counselors need to have official records of those grades to help youngsters choose future courses and get remedial aid. He called the union’s tactic “incomprehensible” and denied Johnson’s contention that a similar withholding of grades last semester led the district to better its pay offer. More money from the state lottery allowed that, Britton said.
District officials insist that they will dock teachers as much as several hours pay a month if they withhold the grades. But if entire paychecks are withheld, the union plans to strike May 1, more than a month earlier than envisioned under a scenario of failed negotiations.
Johnson repeated his oft-stated theme that the district is top-heavy with management and that the bureaucracy should be cut to help fund teachers’ salary hikes. Britton said that cuts will be made in administration but that the UTLA does not pay enough attention to the costs of utilities, clerks, security, transportation and maintenance. A boost in state funds would be the best solution, according to the superintendent.
The two discussed plans to decentralize power in the enormous district and allow individual schools to make decisions. Britton, who introduced such school-based management in his previous job as head of Dade County, Fla., schools, conceded that he and the union had agreed on such a plan for Los Angeles but that the school board objected to the specific rules for voting at the school level. The board feared that teachers would have too much control, Johnson said. The matter is now being renegotiated.