Los Angeles Schools Face A $400 Million Deficit

Union of 34,000 teachers is poised to start a strike that would affect 651 schools and 641,206 pupils. State agencies try to solve dilemma.

AMERICA'S second-largest school system is facing the most serious budget crisis in its history. A decade-long domino effect beginning with costly concessions to strong unions during the 1980s and continuing with national and state recession has left the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teetering on the brink of insolvency.

A last-ditch effort by the state to avoid bankruptcy by cutting teachers salaries 12 percent was thrown out of court last week and into the lap of a state agency charged with overseeing collective bargaining. At issue is how to make up a $400 million deficit in a $3.9 billion budget.

The two contesting parties - United Teachers-Los Angeles (UTLA) and the LAUSD Board - are today preparing strategies to bring to the bargaining table Dec. 3 to avoid a strike by the 34,000-member union. At stake are 651 schools and 641,206 pupils.

"We have already cut everything else there is to cut ... administration, maintenance, insurance, equipment, and programs," says Letitia Quezada, school board president. "The only thing left to chop is salaries."

The district says it will declare bankruptcy if it is forced to pay salaries at the current level. To avoid this, state education officials stepped in last week to OK emergency salary cuts. With fears that such cuts would be ruled illegal, local authorities were poised to begin takeover operations. Until the two sides come to agreement under the jurisdiction of the Public Relations Em- ployment Board, the 12-percent cut is in effect.

"This [cut] is going to send teachers screaming from this district," says Catherine Carey, chief spokeswoman for UTLA. Union membership has already authorized a strike over the issue, but a second vote is scheduled next week. "Younger teachers will leave teaching altogether."

Los Angeles teachers rank 11th among major American cities for longtime teachers at $45,239 a year, and first for beginners at $29,529. The pay cut would give first-timers about $26,000 and cut health benefits as well.

Don Toy, a second-year art teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in East Los Angeles, agrees that the conflict could drastically affect teachers' career decisions. After his first year of teaching at a junior high school last year, he was bumped for cost-cutting. Rehired this year at just under $30,000 annual salary, he says he has been forced to use spoiled paints with a $350 annual budget for an oversized class of 35. "My concern is that they are basically tying the hands of teachers while giving them more and more students under worse and worse conditions," Mr. Toy says.

But Maureen DiMarco, state secretary for Child Development and Education, says that it is the union victories over the past decade that have put the school district in its current financial straits. In 1988, teachers won a total of 24 percent in raises. Over the 1980s, she says, the district granted 49 percent increases in cost-of-living adjustments and was spending revenue twice as fast as it was getting it.

Though Toy and others express a clear desire for state government to come to the rescue, Ms. DiMarco says the chances of that are "slim to none and the bet is on none." California's well-publicized budget woes of the past two years have resulted in the two largest state deficits in American history.

Because of higher taxes to cover half the state's 1990 shortfall of $14.5 billion, California was plunged into deeper recession, by most accounts. Higher taxes are also the main complaint of businesses exiting the state in droves.

And voters Nov. 3 repealed a snack tax whose proceeds went directly to education.

"Yes, L.A. is a tough, urban district, but they have to learn to live within their means," DiMarco says. "Or you need the public to indicate its willingness to help out, which it has not."

BOTH sides in the current dispute are free to bargain informally at any time. Formal negotiations with the Public Employment Relations Board will begin Dec. 3. Ms. Carey says its tactics will include asking the board to stop the pay cut, obtaining permission to return jurisdiction to the courts, and a lawsuit to invalidate the pay cut.

"We will examine both sides' ability to budge from totally set positions," says Judge Gary Gallery, chief administrative judge assigned to the dispute. "The union could fight for less of a cut or some other assurance they can recoup losses in the future."

"There doesn't appear to be too many options," says Melanie Deutsch, principal of Dixie Canyon Avenue ElementarySchool. She says she has dusted off the same contingency plan the school used in 1988 for a long strike. That includes consolidating classes in auditorium spaces as well as outdoors and calling on parent volunteers for everything from field trips to yard supervision.

The school has already cut back on field trips, assistance personnel, yard supervisors, maintenance, and transportation.

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