How to Avoid a Strike : Special commission shows how to minimize pain of teacher pay cuts

Public school districts are in crisis throughout California. The state's largest district, Los Angeles Unified, is in the worst shape. People are talking about major pay cuts to balance a budget $400 million short of anticipated expenses. Teachers are dreading a proposed 17.5% loss in pay, but an independent study offers hope of a smaller sacrifice.

The findings, released Tuesday, deserve immediate consideration by the L.A. Board of Education and the district's teachers. It would be an error to dismiss the recommendations out of hand.

It's true that pay cuts are unavoidable, according to a special commission sponsored by LEARN, the innovative business-civic organization that is dedicated to improving public education. But, it said, the pain can be reduced by boosting revenues up to $22 million and slashing expenses by as much as $100 million.

A series of bonuses and other incentives intended to reduce absenteeism among students and teachers would pay off handsomely, according to the commission, chaired by former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. A mere 1% increase in daily school attendance would generate an additional $20 million in state aid. Reducing sick days and the use of substitute teachers by 25% would save at least $13 million. Paring health costs by a mere 10% could save as much as $33 million. Continuing the districtwide hiring freeze, reducing workers' compensation claims, conserving energy and postponing buying some materials also would help.

These proposals won't sit well with some employees, because if implemented they still would not obviate the need for pay cuts--only reduce them.

But all these sacrifices are needed to avert a teachers strike that would do even greater damage to the children than the severe belt-tightening that is proposed. A strike would be a considerable evil that would badly undermine confidence in the public schools.

Pay cuts for all district employees may be unavoidable, but the LEARN panel's blueprint shows a way to lessen the pain and to avoid an impasse--and a strike.

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