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Contract Talks Put L.A. Schools at a Crossroads : Labor: Negotiations with teachers begin Tuesday. Pressure to restore last year’s pay cut is heightened by the need for faculty backing on key reforms.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

On Tuesday, when a dozen leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers union take seats around a conference table and begin intense labor talks, far more than salaries will be at stake.

The negotiations will be closely watched by leaders and parents communitywide who say that the giant district’s credibility, its reform movement and perhaps even its existence also are on the line.

“If the district continues the feuding and infighting at the expense of improving the quality of education and at the expense of our children,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, “then many of us are going to be inclined to take another look at alternatives that we opposed in the past. . . . If it’s business as usual, they all may find themselves losing some allies.”

The contract talks--in which teachers are seeking restoration of a stinging 10% salary cut imposed last year--come at a crucial time in the history of the 640,000-student district.

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Over the last two years, the district fought off a breakup movement pushed by politicians and parents fed up with what they saw as a system failing because of its unmanageable size and unresponsive bureaucracy.

In the fall, the state’s education establishment spearheaded an expensive ballot battle to defeat a voucher initiative that it saw as harmful to the state’s public schools. The initiative, which would have provided public tax dollars for private school tuition, was soundly rejected. But polls showed that voucher proponents had tapped into public frustration with school quality.

At the same time, the district embarked on a broadly supported reform movement that depends on collaboration among administrators, teachers and parents.

The reform plan, LEARN--Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--is in place at 87 campuses.

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At least 70% of the teachers at a given school must agree to participate before the program can begin there. LEARN supporters fear that teachers will be unwilling to accept that added responsibility if the union is in the middle of contentious contract talks, let alone a strike.

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“This is their watershed moment,” Genethia Hayes, director of an inner-city education program for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a LEARN adviser, said of the district and the union.

“Are they going to be able to set aside their differences? This is what they are asking us to do with LEARN,” Hayes said.

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Mike Roos, president of LEARN, agreed.

“I don’t believe that reform would necessarily collapse” if contract talks do, Roos said, but “this is a time to show there is collaboration at leadership levels . . . any work action is a shock wave we can ill afford.”

A return of the divisiveness that led to a strike in 1989 and bitter, protracted negotiations, would probably cause irreparable damage to employee morale and public confidence, school board members and community leaders say.

“With each progressive conflict that occurs in the district, the patience level of the larger community is less and less,” said school board President Mark Slavkin. “There is a sense in the community that the district already has enough problems. They want to see us act like adults, get this done with and move forward without hurting kids.”

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Said Supt. Sid Thompson: “If we get into some kind of protracted problem related to negotiations, we all will lose--the employees, the kids, their education, the system. What does matter is public perception. And we have to show we are a viable organization.”

Both sides want to deliver an offer to teachers by the time school starts in September, he added.

On the other hand, observers say, a quick and peaceful resolution would be a powerful signal that the district and its combative teachers union could find a way to get along despite oppressive economic conditions.

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United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein, while agreeing that there is tremendous community pressure to cooperate, said her first allegiance is to her more than 32,000 union members.

“What has happened to us is so wrong, there is no choice but to make it better,” Bernstein said, adding that she is not intimidated by the make-or-break scenarios. “It is our American right to strike. If we choose to strike, it will be because we are desperate.”

No other teachers union in the nation has been socked with such a paycheck blow, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

The reductions were part of unprecedented district budget cuts that slashed about $1.2 billion over five years and led to increased class sizes and layoffs.

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Nationally, Los Angeles teachers have become an example of how bad it can get.

“I hear a lot of teacher union presidents around the country saying to their membership: ‘It could be worse, we could be L.A.,’ ” said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Assn. and a nationally respected leader of unionism and school reform.

Bernstein said she will walk into negotiations Tuesday with a thick list of suggestions for eking out money to restore some pay cuts. This year, she said, the union hired its own auditors to comb the $4.2-billion budget for possible savings.

While acknowledging that the union has not identified enough funds to make up the full 10% , she criticized the district for not being more aggressive in trying to do the same.

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Thompson said some pay cuts will be restored but he cannot yet say how much.

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While the district’s preliminary budget approved in June did not include salary restoration, board members said their top priority is to find the money.

The salary debate comes after a record 1,307 teachers left the district in 1993, records show.

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The district’s ability to hire top college graduates or even instructors who hold valid teaching credentials has been damaged, Thompson said; the lower pay scale combined with the difficult challenges of teaching needy, urban children does not put the district in a competitive situation.

But parents and community leaders have their own priorities for improvements in the nation’s second-largest school district. Many parents have pegged their hopes for reform on LEARN and do not want to see it jeopardized.

“They are telling us to reach ‘consensus’ and work in ‘collaboration,’ ” said Kathleen Dixon, a parent activist from San Pedro. “Well, now it’s time for them to set an example.”


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