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Teachers Union’s Excess

The latest salvo in the campaign by the teachers union to wring a generous raise from the cash-strapped Los Angeles Unified School District is a petition drive declaring that teachers have “lost confidence” in the leadership of Supt. Roy Romer. The tactic, aimed at pressuring the superintendent and board members to capitulate, is an unseemly flexing of union muscle at a time when the state’s public school systems are fighting Sacramento for their financial health.

The Los Angeles school board is dominated by members elected with union money, and it already has given in on two issues important to the union: downsizing the district’s administrative structure and ending a school evaluation process that teachers considered punitive.

In addition, the board agreed -- against Romer’s advice -- to continue picking up the tab for a costly benefit package that provides teachers and their families with fully paid healthcare coverage for life.

Still, United Teachers Los Angeles President John Perez said teachers are frustrated with the pace of salary talks, and tired of being made to feel guilty for wanting more money. In addition to its petition campaign, the union is trying to generate public outrage with a series of radio commercials and full-page newspaper ads that accuse the district of trying to stiff its teaching corps.

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Hardball tactics are a staple of contract negotiations, and the union is entitled to counter the district’s foot-dragging with its own propaganda campaign. But the school board, not Romer, dictates the district’s position in contract talks. It’s hard to see what the union stands to gain by sliming the superintendent, whose contract was recently extended.

Union leaders surely know that a raise for teachers is in the cards. But after years of painful budget cuts -- almost $500 million was cut from the district’s $6.8-billion budget last year alone -- board members sensibly say they want to figure out where the money will come from before they make an offer.

There’s no question that the budget cuts have taken a toll on teachers. Class sizes have increased, counseling positions have been eliminated and supplies are dwindling.

Teachers also are feeling the pressure of new accountability measures -- more high-stakes testing and closer tracking of students -- and the frustration of being asked to do more with less. It doesn’t help that the district’s budget process puts teachers in the role of beggars at contract time.

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But under Romer’s hardheaded guidance, the district has achieved a rare measure of stability after years spent careening from crisis to crisis.

Schools are being built, test scores have risen and a handful of innovative programs are flourishing. Those gains would not have been made without the hard work of classroom teachers, who deserve a salary increase. Their union leaders ought to recognize that the long-term health of the district depends, in part, on public perception that it is being run professionally and cooperatively.

This is a new era in school-labor relations. Teachers are under a microscope and threats to union dominance are converging from all sides -- the growth of the charter school movement, the governor’s proposal for merit pay, challenges to the tenure system and changing attitudes among union members as veteran teachers retire. Ultimately, teachers thrive as the district thrives. The old game of building public support by pitting “fat cats” against schoolkids isn’t in anyone’s benefit anymore.


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