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Pressure Mounts to Avert Strike by L.A. Teachers

Times Education Writers

Pressure mounted Friday for the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers to reach a contract settlement, or at least postpone a strike, as campuses struggled through a confusing last day of classes before a scheduled teacher walkout.

Los Angeles-area legislators and Parent-Teacher Assn. leaders called for ‘round-the-clock negotiations. In Sacramento, there was talk of how much additional state tax revenues would be available to increase the district’s salary offer and what effect, if any, a strike would have on Gov. George Deukmejian’s expected announcement of a revised budget next week.

United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson, in an interview at his office, said he met Friday morning with two members of the school board and characterized the discussions as “positive and friendly” but stressed that there had been no breakthrough.

“Our communications are like a professional boxing match in the first round. We are sort of feeling each other out,” he said.

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Johnson added that he hoped “the meetings might get us to a point where we feel we can make a deal and then make one.”

Negotiators were talking over the telephone Friday in discussions that were expected to last late into the night.

Board member Jackie Goldberg, who showed up at a morning press conference by Democratic legislators, urged lawmakers to help free up additional state tax money.

“Communication is going on very nicely,” she said, referring to informal talks with the union. “The problem is whether we can agree.”

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Meanwhile, campuses throughout the nation’s second-largest district were in a free-fall toward a Monday strike, with teachers packing up materials and some students skipping school. The district said it was beefing up police patrols and considering hiring off-duty officers from other local agencies in case of a walkout.

Dick Fisher, the district’s chief negotiator, stressed Friday that the district remains committed to using 60% of any new state monies to fulfill the current offer. The offer guarantees teachers 21.5% over three years--8% this year, 5.5% in 1990 and 8% in 1991--and pledges to raise the second year to 8% if the district receives sufficient additional state funds. That would allow the district to offer a total raise of 24% over three years.

Asked Friday night if the union would accept such a 24% offer, UTLA spokeswoman Catherine Carey said: “We don’t speculate on trial balloons. We want an offer across the table in writing. . . . When it’s offered at the table, we will consider it.”

The seven-member school board is reported badly divided on how quickly to make a new offer, and that was compounded by uncertainty about the size of the state surplus. On Friday, board members talked informally, clustering in groups of twos and threes in district headquarters hallways. Board President Roberta Weintraub said a closed meeting of the school board was scheduled for today.

Several well-placed sources on legislative staffs and among Sacramento lobbyists Friday offered three scenarios for the use of what many expect will be a $750-million revenue surplus. The most optimistic scenario for a strike settlement is that the Legislature would allow all the provisions of Proposition 98 and the Gann spending limit to take effect, sending about $560 million to schools and community colleges; under that, the Los Angeles district might receive $60 million, most of that with no strings attached.

Another possibility will be offered next week by Democratic leaders. That would shift budget limits around, allowing only $300 million extra for schools, with $33.7 million going to Los Angeles, according to the experts. The Los Angeles share available for salaries could be much lower if legislators and the governor require that education funds go for school maintenance or textbook purchases.

“But the informal thinking is that most of it would be available for local districts to do what they want,” said one legislative aide.

Yet, an influential lobbyist stressed that there is much Republican hostility toward the overwhelmingly Democratic Los Angeles district and its teachers’ union.

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The third option is that two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature and the governor move to suspend Proposition 98, the measure passed last fall by voters that guarantees much state funds for schools. A suspension could mean no extra monies for schools.

The governor, who was in Los Angeles Friday, refused to comment on the surplus. He is expected to present his budget revisions by the end of next week. The Senate Budget Committee is expected to discuss the surplus Monday afternoon.

At their downtown press conference Friday, nine Democratic state lawmakers called for a settlement of the teachers’ contract. Los Angeles Assemblywoman Maxine Waters warned that a walkout could put more students on the street and increase the risk of gang violence.

PTA Chides Both Sides

While emphasizing their collective political clout, the lawmakers sidestepped questions about using that influence to help increase state funding for the district.

Citing the uncertainty of how much money will be available, and the complexity of the legislative process, Waters said, “for us to commit on (future) dollars that will be available would be irresponsible.”

During their own press conference, leaders of PTAs throughout the district echoed the call for negotiations and criticized both the union and the district.

“It is clear that rancor has been building for many months, resulting in the current lack of trust between the parties. If a strike occurs, there will be no winners,” the PTA announced.

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State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, saying he has been in touch with both sides, called on the union to delay a strike until after a fact-finder’s report and the governor’s budget update are released next week.

Attendance at some schools dropped as much as 15% Friday, with absent students apparently figuring little would be accomplished in the tense prestrike situation.

Feelings of division grew between those teachers who are committed to a strike and those who say they will go to work Monday. Some faculty lounges were said to be as unpleasant Friday as border state households were on the eve of the Civil War, with sons heading to opposing armies.

At Marshall High School in the Los Feliz-Silver Lake area, Principal Donald Hahn said about 600 students--50 more than usual--were absent out of a total enrollment of 2,800. He estimated that only about 1,600 students would come to school if there is a strike.

“I expect most of the seniors will come in because they want to ensure graduation,” he said, adding that younger students have less at stake.

About 150 students at Palms Junior High School walked out of classes for about an hour Friday to show support for teachers but also to express concern that many teachers have pledged not to file student grades next week. At Nightingale Junior High School near downtown Los Angeles, about 100 students left campus during a break Friday morning, but school officials persuaded most to return to class, Principal Jess Bojorquez said.

Both district and union leaders expressed concern about possible violence on campuses next week if there is a strike. District police canceled all vacations and training programs and are placing officers on longer shifts as of this morning.

Teachers committed to a strike were also worried about finances because they could face weeks without pay during a lengthy walkout. To aid them, the teachers’ credit union announced Friday that it would allow a moratorium on payments due on car and personal loans for the duration of a strike but that mortgage payments could not be postponed.

During breaks Friday, teachers carried the last boxes full of personal belongings and teaching materials from classrooms to their cars. School-owned materials were tucked away in locked storage closets, and classroom bulletin boards were stripped of displays.

“It’s really a hard day,” said Adele Mallin, a drama teacher at Reed Junior High School in North Hollywood. “You don’t know when you’re saying goodby to these students whether you’re going to ever see them again.”

Teachers who decide to work can earn extra pay by teaching additional classes, as well as by adding extra students to their regular classes, school officials said.

School principals and their staffs will schedule classes during the strike. The district has insisted that all schools remain open. Room keys were collected from teachers as they left school Friday.

Administrators at Huntington Park High School mailed letters to parents on Friday directing students to meet at various locations--such as the cafeteria, library and gymnasium--according to grade levels.

Some students at Reed said they will wait until Monday before they decide whether to attend school during the strike. Reed eighth-grader Ethan Krupp, 14, said that if after a couple of days “all we are doing is watching movies in the auditorium, then I’m going to stay home.”

Krupp’s classmate, Justin Schneiderman, 14, said he and his brother are already making plans to take Monday off.

“It’s going to be great,” he said.

Times staff writers Elaine Woo and Rich Connell contributed to this story.


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