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Glum L.A. Teachers Go Over Offer by District : Labor: The proposal would restore 7% of a 10% pay cut. The membership appears to favor more bargaining rather than a strike.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

On a weekend when Dorothy Phillips had hoped to be writing science lessons for her new batch of wily middle-school kids, she instead found herself studying a teachers’ contract offer, so that if she has to, she can rev up her colleagues for a strike.

“It’s so depressing to be starting another school year not being able to focus on what really matters,” Phillips, of Van Nuys Middle School, said Sunday. “It’s like, boom! All the positive things that we are supposed to be feeling right now have been cut off.”

Indeed, as about 500 teacher representatives like Phillips gathered at Hamilton High School on Sunday afternoon to hear United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein lash the school district’s contract offer point by point, most in the auditorium were decidedly pessimistic.

“This is tiring, this is demoralizing,” said Rogelio Lopez of Compton Avenue Elementary School. “This is what divides us more than anything else you can put in a school system. I don’t want to see a strike, because it creates hate whether you like it or not. But this is a matter of justice for teachers.”

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The districtwide meeting offered the first rank-and-file glimpse of how teachers are viewing an offer by the Los Angeles Board of Education to restore 7% of the 10% pay cut that they have absorbed for two years.

Of that 7%, the board is guaranteeing to refund only 4% indefinitely, and 3% is a one-year-only giveback.

For the union, however, the devil is in the details.

To get even half of the 4% portion of the restoration, the district’s other unions must agree to use a pooled $42 million in health benefit savings.

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What the teachers are demanding is 10%, no strings attached, or they strike soon after most schools open Sept. 12.

“By a series of specious maneuvers and with the most profound cynicism, the district has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Bernstein. “This is a 2% guarantee, a 2% maybe and a 3% one-year only.”

If the strength of the crowd’s cheers and jeers was an indication of where teachers stand, there was clearly more support for the union to bargain for a better offer than there was to strike.

“A lot of teachers are looking at this (negotiating process) as posturing right now,” Phillips said. “But what we are hoping is that the district will come back with something that is acceptable.”

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Several teachers said they would accept a one-year contract with a solid 7% restoration.

“We need something solid. To me, this offer does not count,” said Mary Pat Kaletsky of Micheltorena Street Elementary School in Silver Lake. “For two years I’ve been living with $300 a month less, but I am expected to do the same, if not more work. I personally won’t tolerate this anymore.”

Said Bev Cook of Bell High School: “I was hoping the district would come in with a reasonable offer. Mentally this is very hard on us.”

School Board President Mark Slavkin said Sunday that theirs is “the best offer available based on the information available to us.” He said they may be open to changing their stance after a process of fact-finding, in which an arbitrator makes non-binding recommendations to both sides.

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That expert has not yet been chosen.

But, he said, “there is not a strategic decision on the part of the board to hold back and low-ball this offer to have something to give later.”

The district has identified $162.4 million in surplus funds that the district can responsibly afford to fund the 7% restoration, he said.

The union is not advocating program or education cuts to fund salaries. It says that another $30.5 million is available if the board is willing to dip further into liability and workers’ compensation self-insurance funds, and to be more liberal in their estimates of future Medi-Cal and lottery reimbursements.

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The union also believes that fewer teachers than expected will retire, leaving more money from unpaid retirement benefits for salaries.

Slavkin said the board’s independent accountants have advised that at least two of these moves could damage the district’s credit ratings. And in addition, he said, the contract has to stand up to a tough review from Los Angeles County Office of Education auditors.

But after years of adversarial relations with the school board, the rank and file are inclined to believe the union-distributed fact-and-figure sheets that they held in their hands Sunday.

“It’s like (the district) stabbed us in the back and now they are pulling (the knife) halfway out and saying that’s better,” said Curtis Peugh of North Valley Occupational Center in Mission Hills.

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