A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 6: The Teachers : Cutting Their Losses in the Classroom

Times Staff Writer

The day of reckoning arrived in early November.

Singly and in informal pairs, like herd animals going down to the river in the evening, teachers streamed into the office after school and scooped up their pay envelopes from atop the heavy wooden counter.

They had done this many times before and didn't vary their routine or their lightly jovial manner just because they knew this time there was something nasty inside the plain white envelopes.

Still, when they pulled the checks out and exposed them to the air, it was as though the paper gave off a foul odor. Several faces wrinkled in disgust and some even responded with shocked intakes of breath and mumbled curses.

"Do I have to get out my glasses to read my pay stub?" asked Marilyn Hayes, the gym teacher, her visor low on her forehead and her silver and black hair streaming over it.

"You probably owe them money," a fellow teacher said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District began the 1992-93 school year with a $400-million deficit, a product of California's sagging economy. In an attempt to close that gap, the Board of Education voted on June 26 to cut the salaries of district employees, including 35,000 teachers, by nearly $250 million.

This worked out to a 12% cumulative pay cut, including a 3% cut imposed the previous year.

Although the pay cut still left teachers 12% above where they were in 1989, when they won a 24% raise spread over three years, they reacted with predictable anger to the possibility of losing their hard-won benefits and threatened to strike. It had taken a bitter, nine-day strike that ground education to a halt to force the school board to grant the big raise.

Many of the teachers at Northridge were veterans of earlier job actions and faced the prospect of another strike with grim determination as well as a certain amount of dread. Frank Randa knew the teachers would probably face a lot of wrath. Because everybody was suffering hard times these days, there was likely to be much less sympathy for teachers, whose average salary in 1991 was $44,966.

That sounded like a lot of money. And it was true that some of the older teachers on campus had done well by themselves on the district salary. Bruce Faunce had a condo in Palm Springs and Frank Eichorn had a ranch in Thousand Oaks and several rental properties.

Rich Dunner owned an apartment building in Beverly Hills. When the jury in the federal Rodney G. King civil rights trial retired to begin deliberations, he made it clear that he would protect his investment. "I've got 400 rounds of ammunition stored up," he whispered to a visitor after preaching racial harmony to his advisory class.

But none of the younger teachers were buying apartment buildings, now that housing prices, even in the recession, were 680% higher than they were only 20 years ago.

Vanessa Culp, at 28 one of the younger teachers, looked for months and all she could afford was a condominium in North Hollywood. Even then, she had to get her two sisters to come in on the deal with her.

Now, with the pay cut, everyone was trying to find new ways to cut $500 a month out of their household budget.

"I'm going back to living poor," said Wilma Hitchins, who teaches a class for the trainable mentally retarded. "We think twice before we go to a movie or eat out."

Many teachers already had second jobs. Ronn Yablun ran a learning center called Mathamazement. Judi Levin made and sold wedding invitations and taught adult school on Saturdays. Walt Uchiek said he would probably try to open a small boutique to sell some of his handmade clothing.

Then there were the teachers who were so fed up they were planning to leave the district. Laurice Harris, a short woman with a deep laugh who teaches computer skills, came out from Indiana four years ago to get married. "It fell through, the bum," she said, laughing sardonically.

She had since soured on the California Dream. Her school in Indiana had lessons beamed in from Arizona. She had a color printer for the computers. Here, it took two years to get a pencil sharpener in her room.

After much fussing and fuming and angry denunciations between teachers and the district, it came down to a Tuesday in early December, when teachers across Los Angeles would vote on the new contract, with its 12% pay cut. If they rejected it, a strike was likely.

A new strike was bound to open old wounds left over from the 1989 strike.

"We were just to the point where people were starting to say hello to each other again and this happens," Eichorn said miserably. He did not join the strike in 1989.

The old hurt feelings spilled out at lunch before the vote that Tuesday in December.

"I've got a sick wife," Eichorn said. "We have an $800,000 bill at Kaiser for her leukemia treatments. She says, 'No way!' on a strike. 'We need that check.' "

He looked around hopefully. "I'll go out three days to show solidarity."

"You don't need to show solidarity," Randa said bluntly, munching the sandwich he brought in a brown paper bag. The two men were sitting next to each other, almost arm against arm, and it suddenly seemed too close.

"If I come in after three or four days, or a week, will there be bad feelings?" Eichorn asked.

"You bet there will," Randa responded.

A low-key, friendly man who shuffled around campus with a duck-footed gait, Randa was so well-liked that he got away with saying things to people's faces that others hesitated to say behind their backs.

He added as an afterthought, "People who don't go out and then accept what the strikers get I have no admiration for."

This was a direct slam at Eichorn, who made money both ways in 1989, by working during the strike and accepting the benefits his striking colleagues won for him. Some of those who crossed the picket lines back then made a nice chunk of money. By taking double-sized classes, they got double-sized paychecks, angering the strikers still more.

Marilyn Hayes, sitting in another part of the lunchroom, said she considered people like that "parasites."

"She didn't have leukemia in '89," agreed Patty Suydam, a middle-aged English teacher.

That afternoon, the teachers filed into the library to cast their ballots. Randa set up a screen to show a video of UTLA head Helen Bernstein. With the American flag in the background, Bernstein looked like she was sending off a troop ship in World War II.

"Half of you think I should quit harping on the bureaucracy," she said. "Half of you think I haven't harped enough. The decision is now yours."

"It's good to be old because nothing scares me," said Suydam as she cast her ballot.

Of the 41 Northridge teachers eligible to vote, 40 cast ballots. Twenty-eight favored a strike and 12 were opposed. That was a slightly smaller margin than resulted in the district as a whole, where 78% of the 21,194 members who cast votes favored a walkout in February unless the district came up with more money.

Against this backdrop of tension and mistrust, teachers began limiting extra work that wasn't required by the contract, even when it came to meeting with parents.

Because Northridge was primarily a minority school, special parent meetings called PHBAO conferences were held each year. The previous year, they were at night and 41% of the parents attended. This time, after teachers objected to working at night, the meetings were held after school.

Only a handful of parents showed up. Those who did were a varied group that underscored the daunting problems the district and its teachers faced trying to educate a rainbow society. There were Latino families walking in quiet little clumps, the men with laborers' hands and sun-carved faces, wearing plaid shirts, the women in plain housedresses, with long, braided hair.

And there was the Russian family, a stout, erect woman with a gap in her teeth and a chubby blond son. A quiet, slender boy who had just moved here from India led the way for his father and two aunts. The boy's mother was still trying to get out of India.

Ceasar Martinez, a big, muscular kid with a babyish, chipmunk face, showed up with his dad, who also was named Ceasar. He was a wiry, grim man with a black cap and a tattoo on his arm, and the boy gave him a wide berth. Ceasar's problem, the teachers said, was his tough-guy attitude.

"I've got four fights on you," said Mary Stepter, a science teacher. Ceasar was a bright kid but an indifferent student. Gladys Kelly said he had a problem with back-talk. When he was disciplined, he tended to come right back at you.

His father said he would have a talk with his son. The elder Martinez often didn't see his son, who lived with his grandmother, for months at a time.

The teachers heard stories like this all the time. Broken and patched-up families were the norm.

"I can relate to your problems," the father said. "I'm not one to beat him. But if there's not a change starting tomorrow, there will be a change in me."

The teachers also sat down that day with Vickie Black, whose stepson Jesse had been caught with a book on the works of famous taggers. "I've never seen it," Black said, astounded. She was heavy, with a round face, short hair and a cheerful manner that did not betray her life of trouble; Black grew up on welfare, and her first husband was murdered in front of her.

Stepter said Jesse had also been found with a list of gangbangers, though he denied being in a gang. Besides that, Jesse's grades were terrible and he did no work, the teachers said. He had little self-control in class, bursting out whenever the mood took him.

His stepmother said she and his father had tried to turn his interest in art to a constructive purpose. They bought him colored pencils and told him to "draw houses."

It didn't work. Jesse, a skinny, small kid known as Bones, was arrested for tagging one day on the way to school.

These were the parents who cared enough, or could afford to take the time, to come to the daytime conferences. There were 168 students on Kelly and Stepter's team, the American Dreamers, and about 25 parents attended.

The administrators said the poor showing was directly attributable to the teachers' refusal to meet at night. "I don't want to speak against the teachers, but we're in the business to communicate with parents," Assistant Principal Bob Coburn said angrily.

When Open House came around in the spring, Principal Beryl Ward hoped the teachers would voluntarily change their position on night meetings.

Open House was one of the premier school events, when teachers posted student work and the school put its best foot forward. Not holding it at night would be a crime.

Ward took the matter to the Shared Decision Making organization, a body composed of teachers, parents and administrators as well as Student Body President Elizabeth Diaz.

The meeting after school in the library began with some announcements. Rich Dunner said a former Northridge student had come back and given an address encouraging students to go on to college. Dunner ensured the listeners' attention by offering a prize for the best question asked of the speaker. The winning question was "How much studying do I have to do and how much time is there for partying?"

After the indulgent chuckles died away around the large table, PTSA President Alice Dabboussi brought up Open House. She said she had sent 1,100 letters home to parents asking when they would like to have it. Four teachers "did not choose" to give the letters to the students, Dabboussi said, but she still got more than 200 responses. A large majority preferred that the event be held at night.

Frank Randa said he surveyed the teachers. He tried to sell them on an evening meeting, and even invoked Helen Bernstein. She was counseling teachers to build better relationships with parents, whose support they might need down the road. "I guess my appeal didn't ring home," he said, shrugging in that slight way that said he did the best he could.

Two-thirds of the teachers voted for an afternoon Open House.

"So you'll be available for 5% of the parents," Dabboussi said sarcastically.

"It's a real mistake that we not be responsive to parents," Ward said. She said the voucher proposal is coming up, referring to the ballot proposition that would take money from schools and give it to parents to use for private schooling. Vouchers was one thing all factions on campus were in agreement on: Everyone hated the idea.

One of the other teachers on the panel said her colleagues were disappointed with the turnout at Back to School Night, the other evening event. "We didn't have half the parents," she said. "Teachers think it's a waste of time."

Mary Patrick, who had come to teaching from business, was disgusted.

"We're in the service industry," she said in a voice quavering with anger. "To turn your backs on 66% of your clients is like, where are you coming from? Do you want their business? Do you want to be a teacher?"

Frank Randa said calmly that he believed in an evening Open House too, but his membership felt differently. Ward said an elected representative should have the courage to act on his own sometimes.

"We've gotta stop being . . . "

"Wishy-washy," said a parent.

"Yes, wishy-washy," Ward agreed.

Randa was fuming. "I don't consider it to be wishy-washy," he said.

"We have never voted on an issue," Ward said forlornly. She was proud of the fact that this group had been able to make decisions by consensus, without one side having to beat the other down in a vote.

But there was no other way out. Finally, the group voted. After a show of hands, the final tally was 11 votes for an evening Open House and three, all teachers, for a daytime event.

The teachers lost, but Randa was most upset at the tone of the debate. Afterward, he confronted Ward and asked if she had called him wishy-washy. No, she said.

During the two-month Christmas break, California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown got involved in the Los Angeles school crisis and negotiated a settlement that would scale back the salary cut from 12% to 10%. Though that didn't sound like much, there were some things buried in Brown's 30-page proposal that delighted the teachers. One was an end to the "me too" clause, which allowed the union representing administrators to ride along on the coattails of teachers and get the same benefits after a strike settlement.

The Brown agreement also ended some of the perquisites of rank. One of the most visible to the teachers at Northridge was the parking lot behind a tall, locked gate near the faculty lounge, where Beryl Ward, Ron Klemp, Derek Horowitz and Susie Shapiro parked.

There were two other parking lots on campus, but neither was locked. Two cars had been stolen from one of them.

The teachers met again in the library to vote on the Brown proposal. "I talked to Helen Bernstein," Randa said.

"She felt 10% is horrible. However, she did say there are things we have gained in it that we will never see again. Administrators are frantic about losing the 'me too' clause," he gloated.

"No matter which way we go, we're shit on," Patty Suydam said sadly. "We're raising the children now."

The vote was 29 to 8 in favor of accepting the proposal.*

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