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Board Still Backs Pact With Teachers Union : Education: Bigger deficit estimate does not undermine the agreement, school officials say. They may have to dip deeper into restricted funds to cover the shortfall.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The possibility of a $20-million midyear deficit has not persuaded a majority of the Los Angeles Unified School District board to withdraw support of a proposed teachers contract, but it will mean that the district will have to dig deeper into textbook and other restricted funds this year.

To avert a threatened teachers strike, the school board agreed last month to a deal proposed by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown that would use the district’s emergency reserve fund to reduce teachers’ cumulative pay cuts from 12% to 10%.

Now, unless the board votes to rescind that deal, the larger deficit will almost certainly force the district to take more from funds that schools had counted on to buy books, finance field trips and offer enrichment activities.

“What would you do if you were the board? Say forget the deal and go on strike, or make this tough choice,” said board member Mark Slavkin. “It’s a classic rock and a hard place kind of decision, but I think the majority of this board is ready to do anything in our power to make this deal work.”

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The state fell $200 million short of expected property tax revenues this spring, leaving school districts across California with unanticipated midyear shortfalls, according to the state Department of Education. For Los Angeles, that will mean $20 million in cutbacks between now and June.

School board member Barbara Boudreaux said she will ask the board to reconsider the settlement offer at its March 15 meeting, contending that the price tag is too high in light of the district’s deteriorating financial condition.

It will cost the district $72 million over the next two years to reduce the size of the pay cut for teachers and 10,000 other district employees affected by Brown’s proposal. To cover the cost, the district intends to drain its $30-million reserve fund and seek state permission to take the rest from accounts intended to pay for campus supplies and special programs.

The unexpected shortfall will force the district to raid those funds for another $20 million. “It’s a terrible, terrible prospect, but a whole lot better than a strike, which we avoided with this deal,” board member Jeff Horton said.

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Boudreaux was part of the six-member board majority that supported the pact when Brown presented it Feb. 19. Board member Roberta Weintraub abstained. A week later, teachers union members voted to accept the deal by a 68.8% majority, averting a strike that would have shut down the nation’s second-largest school district.

“It’s clear now that it’s a very bad contract . . . from the standpoint of the children of this district,” said Weintraub, who plans to vote against the contract when it comes up for formal ratification. “That 12% pay cut in our final offer was really the bottom line. If we have to take money out of our books, our gifted program, our mentor teachers fund, we should have just said no.”

But Horton said the other five members of the seven-member board are standing firm in support of the deal. “This absolutely does not change things,” he said. “It’s still a solid deal and it’s in Willie Brown’s hands to see that it gets consummated.”

Brown aide Rick Simpson said the Speaker does not believe that the deal is threatened by the district’s worsening financial straits or the disagreements between the district and union over provisions of the settlement.

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“There are a couple of issues that the two sides are going to have to talk about and they may end up disagreeing, but the Speaker has said he will arbitrate that and both sides have agreed to abide by that,” Simpson said.

Representatives of the school district and union met for four hours Friday, resolving several issues on which they had disagreed. But dozens more items are in dispute. They will meet Monday.

Simpson said that districts across the state have been hurt by the drop in property tax revenue but that the state may make up the money in the next fiscal year.

“The shortfall is probably temporary and, frankly, not unexpected,” he said. “I know it raises a degree of anxiety in school districts, but it’s more of a cash flow problem.”

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But because school districts are prohibited from finishing the fiscal year in the red, Los Angeles Unified must find money within its $3.8-billion budget to cover the impending deficit, budget Director Henry Jones said. Earlier this year, the board cut $400 million to bring the budget in balance.

“We can’t spend money that we don’t have or we’ll go belly-up,” Jones said. “We can’t say: ‘We’ll get it next year.’ We have to identify the source now.”

The state Department of Education will request a special appropriation to repay districts this summer, but that may face political opposition because the state is struggling to cope with its own growing deficit.


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