'Blue Flu' Hits Angry Teachers in Compton : Education: Officials say the work actions are directly related to stalled labor negotiations.


During the past month, almost all of the teachers at 10 Compton schools have called in with the "blue flu," leaving substitute teachers and administrators to handle classes.

The Compton Education Assn., which represents the 1,185 teachers in the Compton Unified School District, did not sanction the sickouts, union officials said. But the work actions are directly related to stalled labor negotiations that have left the teachers without raises or a contract all year, according to labor and district officials.

"Teachers are angry," said Muriel Brooks, president of the association. "There's no sense in us not saying it. They're angry."

Contract talks broke off in December when the district asked a state fact-finding panel to look at its finances to determine what the district can afford to pay teachers. The panel's report may be released this week.

The district wants the teachers to accept a three-year contract with a 6% pay increase each year. The teachers are asking for a one-year contract and a total revision of the district's pay plan, which they claim contains such low salaries that experienced teachers are being driven out of the district.

Under the pay plan proposed by teachers, raises as high as 12% would go to the most experienced teachers. Entry-level teachers would get 4% raises.

The top teacher salary would go from $39,900 to $45,170 and the entry-level teacher would make $24,155, up from the present $23,226 a year. Under the union's one-year contract proposal, negotiations would have to start all over again in June for next year.

Compton teachers are the lowest paid in the county, according to the salary survey of unified school districts that was compiled by the Los Angeles County Office of Education. In Los Angeles, where teachers last year won higher salaries after a strike, the starting salary is about $27,000; the high is $49,000, said Wiley Jones, executive director of the union.

Without significant pay raises, union leaders predict, there will be an exodus of teachers this year. That is what happened last year when 154 teachers--about 13% of the district's teaching staff--left to take jobs in other districts. The year before, district officials have acknowledged, the number of departing teachers, including those retiring, was only about 55.

"Everybody knows somebody in the district who is leaving," said Brooks, a kindergarten teacher.

"It's hemorrhaging fast," said Patricia Ryan, a high school Spanish teacher and past president of the teachers union.

One middle-school teacher said she is leaving to take a job in Long Beach after 17 years in the Compton schools.

"Oh my God, so much time and dedication I've put into those kids," said the teacher, who said she did not want to be identified because she fears she will be harassed by her supervisors if they learn she is leaving.

Most of the time, she keeps a stiff upper lip about her decision to leave a place in which she says she used to feel needed. "I have crossed my bridge, and I will not come back."

But behind the resolve is sadness and regret. "It's awful. I don't know what's going to happen to Compton," she said.

Like many of her colleagues, she feels hopeless about the future of the Compton schools. The children are among the poorest in Los Angeles County, test scores are the lowest, educational supplies are scarce, school buildings are crumbling, limited resources seem to be mismanaged, and gang violence spills over from the streets onto the campuses, as it did recently when a student was shot at Compton High School.

And, she will earn about $8,000 more a year in Long Beach, where officials confirm they have signed a contract with her.

"Compton has some of the best teachers in the state," Brooks said by way of explaining that she believes unappreciated Compton teachers are quickly scooped up by other urban school districts.

The departing middle-school teacher, who says she has friends who are leaving too, said Compton's teaching staff and the substitute teacher pool are so depleted that she and other teachers are often asked to substitute in classrooms during their preparation period. It means, she says, that if a teacher is absent for the day, students sometimes have a different substitute teacher every hour.

Much of the teacher talk is, doubtless, part of a negotiating strategy for a new contract. But Compton officials do not deny that when the 154 teachers left last year, they had to scramble to replace them and had to use substitutes for weeks in many classrooms.

The union claims that the district has had to hire as many as 200 people this year who do not have credentials. Under state law, districts can hire temporary teachers for a limited period of time, but they must begin working on their teaching credentials and must pass the California Basic Education Skills Test.

Thurman C. Johnson, assistant superintendent of schools in charge of personnel, could not say exactly how many temporary teachers the district has hired. But he said that the number could be as high as 200.

To bolster its claim that the district wants to cut salary costs by hiring less-experienced teachers, the union says that the district is actually spending less money for teacher salaries this year than it did last year because so many people with temporary credentials have been hired.

For the 1989-90 school year, the district budgeted only $38.9 million for teacher salaries, Jones said. That is because the district knew in advance that many experienced teachers were leaving, he said. The year before, the district paid $40.5 million in teacher salaries, he said.

It is true that higher salaries for entry-level teachers might attract more of them to Compton, Jones said, but it would not keep them there. Higher pay scales for experienced teachers, he said, will keep teachers from leaving.

Administration and school board officials declined to discuss the contract negotiations or the teachers' complaints. However, some school board members have said they strongly oppose giving higher pay increases to experienced teachers.

One school district official, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged that experienced teachers are leaving the district. "We're losing teachers," the official said, "but they're (the union) losing members."

That, said the official, gives the district a bargaining chip, because it knows the union would have a harder time conducting a successful strike.

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