A Damaging School Strike

Next Monday school could well be over for the year in Los Angeles. School Superintendent Leonard Britton has in effect dared the teachers' union to strike, and the teachers' union is behaving as if that's precisely what it wants to do. The school district is recruiting substitute teachers, and United Teachers-Los Angeles is printing picket signs. The leaders on each side may feel they are acting to help students in the long run. But if that were really true, there would be no strike.

Britton says he ordered teachers to turn in their grades by Monday because he felt he had a responsibility to students and their parents. They need to know who is graduating, he says, and who will be promoted or need to attend summer school. He adds that the grades must be turned in by Monday because principals must certify the payroll the next day so the teachers can be paid May 26.

One has to question Britton's timing. A fact-finder has held hearings to determine, among other questions, whether the district does or does not have the money to pay for the raises the teachers are demanding. That report is due Wednesday. Why couldn't Britton have waited two more days? Why didn't the school board insist, even after he acted, that he wait two more days? Is Britton trying to goad the union into a possibly illegal strike?

The union set its original strike deadline as May 30 so it would not be accused of short-circuiting the legal processes. Now if it strikes Monday, the school district can ask the Public Employees Relations Board to consider whether the union has recklessly disregarded established procedures. If that board decides the union has acted improperly, it can ask the Superior Court for injunctive relief. The personnel board must act within 24 hours.

The union is not blameless, either. It could withhold grades Monday but not strike. If the union is right that the school district has more money than it is letting on, the fact-finding report should bear that out. Why not wait two days and then take action?

We want to be absolutely clear that we think teachers deserve more money than they are presently being paid. Beginning teachers now earn $23,440; after 19 years, a teacher with a bachelor's degree can receive the district's top pay of $43,000. Teachers with master's degrees earn an extra $153 a year and those with doctorates earn an extra $408. We also think teachers deserve to be treated as professionals and involved more in making decisions at each school. We are not sure how deeply the school district will have to cut into existing programs to pay for the raises it proposes, which seem quite healthy under the financial circumstances. We would like to learn that information from the fact-finding report Wednesday without a strike as a backdrop.

Britton and UTLA President Wayne Johnson are behaving like battling schoolboys. Britton has just drawn a line on the schoolyard and dared Johnson to cross it. Johnson is poised to do just that. Meantime, they have turned their backs on the students who are likely to have to stand around--outside their schools--watching this thoughtless exercise for the rest of the school year.

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