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L.A. Teachers Avert Strike, OK 10% Pay Cut

TIMES EDUCATION WRITERS

A strong majority of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers voted to accept a stinging 10% pay cut, averting a strike next week that would have crippled a school system beset by months of labor strife and financial turmoil.

Results of two days of balloting were announced Friday by union officials, with 68.8% of the 22,878 teachers, counselors and nurses voting for a contract that reduces a cumulative 12% pay cut and gives teachers more decision-making authority.

“This vote does not send a message out to the public that it is OK to do what has been done to teachers. What has happened is wrong,” United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein said. “Don’t breathe a sigh of relief that everything is going to go back to normal in this district. It can’t if we are ever going to heal.”

The teachers union had threatened to go on strike Monday. School Board President Leticia Quezada expressed relief that the action has been canceled.

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“We are going to avoid the chaos that would have been unavoidable in the face of a strike,” which would have irreparably damaged relations among teachers, parents, district officials and the union, she said.

“This was a resounding vote, and I think the voices of the teachers have said very clearly they do not want to strike,” Quezada added. “It’s not a bare majority; it’s an overwhelming majority.”

The strike threat was prompted by the school board’s decision in October to impose pay cuts of 6.5% to 11.5% on all full-time district employees to help bridge a $400-million budget gap. This was in addition to a 3% pay cut carried over from the previous year, which gave teachers a cumulative cut of 12%. Although the district’s seven other unions accepted the pay reductions, the teachers union fought them vehemently. The union represents 32,000 teachers, counselors and nurses.

The results culminate more than six months of intense sparring between the Board of Education and the union. It included four strike-related union votes, court action that temporarily threatened to bankrupt the district and, finally, a call to the second-most-powerful lawmaker in the state, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, to settle the raging dispute.

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Brown pitched the settlement to the board and union leaders a week ago, winning preliminary approval from both sides. The seven-member school board still must ratify the package.

“I am very pleased that good judgment was exercised on the part of teachers,” Brown said Friday from his San Francisco office. “It shows that the children in Los Angeles come first.”

Brown forged a settlement on his own when he realized that the gulf between the two sides was so wide, despite six joint negotiating sessions, that they would be unable to reach an agreement on their own.

To protect scarce district finances, the board had refused to make salary concessions to teachers, while the union was determined to discredit the board’s budget practices. Brown forced them to stop bickering and both sides later said they felt that they were given a fair hearing.

In the end, the offer made no one happy, as Brown had predicted. Some state lawmakers and education officials, including Supt. Sid Thompson and members of the Los Angeles school board, have raised serious concerns about the financial viability of the accord.

“They should be nervous. I was nervous about it,” Brown said. “But this is a risk worth taking if you avoid the possibility of a strike that would further disrupt the city.”

The proposal calls for the district to restore teachers’ salaries using reserve funds and to raid restricted accounts, such as those allocated for textbooks and programs for gifted students, to make up the emergency reserves.

State waivers will probably be needed to allow the transfer of money. Brown has assured the district that he will use his considerable political influence to secure any state action needed to make the contract work. But several of Brown’s political foes, including Gov. Pete Wilson’s top education aide, are questioning the legality and wisdom of the arrangement.

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Teachers’ approval of the Brown settlement enables the union, school district and the Los Angeles Police Department to tear up carefully drawn plans aimed at maintaining order in the event of a massive walkout by teachers.

Across the board, authorities were fearful that a strike could lead to violence in a city crackling with tensions over two volatile trials: the Rodney G. King civil rights trial in federal court and the Reginald O. Denny beating case, which will be heard in Superior Court.

Reducing the salary cut by 2% will cost $72 million over two years, and several other concessions will bring the total cost to the cash-strapped district to about $79 million, placing it in a financially precarious position.

School board member Roberta Weintraub, who abstained from the board’s preliminary vote on the pact, said Friday that many parents have voiced anger over using special funds for teachers’ salaries. She said the district’s financial stability is a “high price to pay.”

Some school administrators are livid over concessions that turn over decision-making power to teachers. Principals say the changes will thwart educationally sound personnel decisions.

The controversial provisions include allowing teachers to choose by seniority the subjects they teach on the high school level, as well as their grade level and year-round school schedule. The past week was punctuated by union and district disputes over the terms of agreement, with Thompson saying that he will bring the matter to Brown to settle.

Realizing the communication rift between the two sides, Brown has assumed the role of ultimate arbitrator of any disputes over the agreement.

He said that “it is a waste of time to talk” to them because “anything you said outside of a formal process is open to misinterpretation.” He said he has intentionally been silent this week and has decided to mainly communicate in writing to both sides.

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He said Friday he is committed to the provision that allows teachers to choose their posts by seniority as long as they are qualified.

At union headquarters near downtown Los Angeles, dozens of union members speedily counted piles of secret ballots so that results could be announced before the end of the school day. Many teachers, believing that they would be on strike Monday, had begun clearing personal belongings out of their classrooms.

The mood at UTLA headquarters was not jubilant, in sharp contrast to the strike-ending vote four years ago when teachers won a 24% pay increase in a three-year contract. Bernstein said Friday’s results belied a grudging acceptance of the Brown package and predicted that more than 3,000 teachers would quit the district for jobs elsewhere.

With the 10% pay cut, the base pay for the least experienced teacher will drop about $3,000 a year to about $27,000. The most experienced teachers will lose about $5,000 a year, leaving them with an annual salary of about $46,000.

Bernstein speculated that half the teachers who voted for the package “hated” the plan and wanted to reject it. But, she added, those teachers feared that a strike might fuel violence.

Quezada criticized Bernstein’s assessments, saying they undermine the prospects for labor peace.

“We have to take responsibility for what we did. Any comment by union representatives to undermine a 68% yes vote on the agreement is counterproductive,” Quezada said, adding that the message on all sides must change.

“This district is not the real culprit,” she said. “The facts are that there is not enough money in Los Angeles schools; the recession is killing every creative inch. We have to come together as leaders and begin to speak in one voice rather than pointing out every blemish of this district.”

During interviews with dozens of teachers during the last two days, many teachers echoed Bernstein’s sentiments and said the vote does not signal an end to their deep morale problems.

If anything, the voting this week appeared to further deflate their spirits as they were confronted with the agonizing decision of accepting a pay cut or walking out with no assurance that they could win a better offer.

Teachers are generally incensed over the 10% pay cut, and even those who accepted the offer say it is a hollow victory.

“I’m really, really angry. . . . It’s an insult,” said Glynn Alam, a Los Angeles High School English teacher and department chairwoman who rejected the offer. “I have a master’s degree and tons of education and I feel like my professional footing has been pulled out from under me.”

Kindergarten teacher Tamara Roderick Nelson, who accepted the offer, said it feels “kind of like death. You get through the grieving and figure out what steps you need to take to go on.”

And although the non-monetary concessions--including improved health benefits, a retirement bonus and active union involvement in a management audit of the district--were the main reasons many accepted the offer, the despair among teachers abounds.

“I don’t see a whole lot of hope,” said one demoralized teacher who voted to strike. “Until something really big can happen to revamp the district, we’re going to fall right back into the same old pattern.”

For the union, the first test of the district’s resolve to achieve labor peace will be over a management audit of the school system.

As part of the contract, the union will hire its own auditors to shadow the district-hired firm of Arthur Andersen & Co. A majority of the board has said it will use the findings as a guide to improving district operations.

“The real test, though, will be to find ways to move out of the adversarial culture that has plagued this district for so many years,” said school board member Mark Slavkin. He said all the district’s unions need to be more involved in making decisions on budget and other issues and the board “needs to stop feeling so isolated and embattled.”

Times education writer Larry Gordon contributed to this story.

The Brown Settlement

Both sides in the Los Angeles teachers contract dispute have approved Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s settlement package, which covers a range of issues, from salary and benefits to classroom assignments and notification of student transfers. Some provisions have financial implications, and others may affect future contract talks with other district unions.

Here are three key provisions and how they will affect the district:

SALARY

Pay cut: Teachers’ pay cut will be reduced from a cumulative 12% to 10% and they will be reimbursed by July for the 2% of the pay taken from their checks since last October.

It will cost $72 million over two years to restore that 2% in pay to the 40,000 employees--including teachers and administrators--in the salary group affected. The $72 million will come from the district’s state-mandated emergency fund.

Impact: With its reserve fund empty, the district will take money from accounts used for textbooks and enrichment activities to set aside for emergencies. This is likely to require a waiver from the State Board of Education or legislation. Some state officials say that emptying the emergency fund could trigger district insolvency proceedings.

Guarantee: If the level of state funding remains the same next year, teachers’ salaries will not be reduced, and any increased revenues will be used to augment their pay.

Impact: Officials estimate that the district will begin the fiscal year in July about $100 million in the hole. If cutting salaries is not an option next year, steeper cuts may be needed in other areas. Brown has promised to use his clout to ensure stable funding for next year.

ME-TOO CLAUSES

Possible bonus: If the district makes “me-too” agreements with other unions, it must give UTLA members a 10% bonus. The agreements are a promise to match more favorable terms awarded to a union that signs later and are given to encourage unions to settle early in the negotiating process.

Impact: This makes it unlikely that district officials will agree to the protection clauses after 1994.

DECISION-MAKING ROLES

Increased power: Teachers at each campus will help make decisions on such matters as assignment of classroom aides, access to parking spaces, lunch areas, telephones and restrooms, and selection of program coordinators and deans. Grade level and class assignments will be determined by seniority.

Impact: These moves will reduce the power of principals. Some, such as assigning courses by seniority, would detract from the authority of department chairs. District Supt. Sid Thompson said he has concerns about three of the changes, and Brown may have to rule on these issues. Under the accord, only Brown has the authority to alter the provisions.


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