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Teachers Union Prevails in L.A. District Plan

Times Staff Writer

Even though it could cost millions, the Los Angeles Unified School District has decided to back off from a confrontation with its powerful teachers union and is offering a contract proposal that would leave health benefits unchanged and restore some funds for classrooms and counseling programs.

According to a letter obtained by The Times, the package would resolve some of the stickiest contractual issues for the 2004-05 school year by dropping previous demands that teachers pay higher deductibles and other health costs. If accepted, it also would eliminate two controversial teacher evaluation programs that United Teachers-Los Angeles wants killed.

Some familiar with the negotiations said the district’s decision to acquiesce on those issues was driven in part by rosier-than-expected budget numbers from the state.

Recent figures from Sacramento suggested that the district is $25 million to $30 million better off than it thought in January, when it projected a budget gap of about $500 million in its operating budget of $5.7 billion.

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In previous rounds of negotiations, the district had asked UTLA and its 45,000 members to shoulder between $25 million and $35 million of those costs by, among other things, increasing co-payments for doctor’s office and emergency room visits, doubling some healthcare deductibles and changing benefit packages for new teachers.

UTLA officials confirmed that they had received the offer but said they had not yet decided whether to accept it.

Teachers did not get a pay increase this year, and the district was not offering one for next year.

However, the union was awaiting final state budget figures to see how hard it could push for pay hikes, according to several people familiar with the negotiations.

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In a June 1 letter to the union, Richard Fisher, the district’s representative in the contract negotiations, said the new offer would “respond to the most critical issues facing the parties ... at this time when the board must effectively resolve the budget crisis, and in the spirit of bringing the negotiations to a speedy resolution.”

But Fisher also noted that the plan could cause an unspecified temporary deficit.

The offer includes restoring $12 million in funds for counselors and $4 million for nurses and psychiatric social workers, positions that had been eliminated or reduced in earlier budget negotiations; putting back a $50-per-student payment to schools for classroom supplies; and closing two evaluation efforts that the union has said are universally disliked by teachers.

In recent speeches to the board, UTLA President John Perez has said that the Red Teams -- an audit program for schools that do not meet certain annual progress goals -- demoralize schools and that Learning Walks -- a district program of classroom evaluations -- do nothing to improve instruction.

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Fisher wrote that the district would close both programs, but would not abolish teacher and campus evaluations altogether.

In an interview Friday, Supt. Roy Romer confirmed that he had recommended to the board last week that the district make the union a comprehensive settlement. He said that the board had approved it, but that he could not comment on the specifics.

“I want to honor the fact that everybody in negotiations needs to be free to move with the issue,” Romer said.

“I can’t comment on that letter,” he said. “I am sorry; it’s the only way.”

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Five members of the seven-member Board of Education have received at least some financial support for election from the teachers union.

Granting the items detailed in his letter, Fisher wrote, would financially “leave the district in a projected interim negative position.”

According to a district spokeswoman, Fisher would not comment on the letter Friday or on whether the higher state revenues would cover the offer’s costs.

Others said the full financial picture would not be clear until next week, when the district releases an interim budget report.

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Perez said that he too was not at liberty to discuss the proposal. “We do not negotiate in the press, and we don’t negotiate in a fishbowl,” he said. “The district asked us to keep it confidential, and I have kept it confidential.” The package made no mention of another union issue: the district’s system of 11 administrative subdistricts, which Perez has said he wanted to see eliminated.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles school board will consider whether to reduce the number of subdistricts, and it was unclear Friday whether the contract settlement offer would help to preserve them.

Romer has said the geographic subdistricts have helped boost student achievement and are aiding the district’s massive construction program.

But Perez has said the local districts represent a waste of money that could be better spent in the classroom.

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