L.A. School System Faces Troubled Times

THE nation's second-largest school system is wading through the thickest economic, social, and political quagmire in its history.

Results expected today from a two-day vote by teachers on a new contract proposal will likely avert what state and local leaders feared would be a devastating teachers' strike beginning March 1. At press time, teachers throughout the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were poised to accept a proposal drafted by State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. It would return to teachers and 10,000 other employees 2 percent of 12 percent cut from salaries last fall to help bridge a $400 million distr ict budget deficit.

But the vote has come amid a growing movement to divide the 640,000-student district into units limited to 100,000 students each. Proponents say the district is too large and unwieldy.

The LAUSD serves a population base of more than 4 million residing in 28 cities and covering 708 square miles. Students represent virtually every ethnicity and nation in the world. Thirty-nine percent are Limited English Proficient (LEP) and speak more than 80 languages and dialects.

Legislation introduced last week by state Senate leader David Roberti (D) would create a 25-member commission to draw new boundaries and work out such details as cross-town busing.

Adding to both controversies this week was the second school-campus handgun killing of a teenager in a month, which has further fueled already-heated debate about school safety. The killing came less than three weeks after the LAUSD launched an unprecedented program of costly metal-detector weapons checks.

"The chickens are coming home to roost in one acute scenario after another," says Maureen DiMarco, Gov. Pete Wilson's secretary of child development and education. She says a decade of costly concessions to strong unions by the LAUSD board have put the district in financial straits, which will not end with the current contract.

In 1988, for instance, teachers won a total of 24 percent in raises despite LAUSD board claims that that was 12 percent more than it could afford. Throughout the 1980s, the district granted cost-of-living increases of 49 percent and spent new revenue twice as fast as it was receiving it.

When LAUSD tried in November to take back 12 percent in salaries to make up $400 million in a $3.9 billion budget, teachers voted to strike by Feb. 24. Now, the contract averting the strike comes with a $72 million price tag that means fewer textbooks, school supplies, and outside activities.

"The battle is over nonexistent resources," Ms. DiMarco says.

The Board of Education approved 6-0 the contract put forth by Speaker Brown Feb. 22, paving the way for what most felt would be union approval Feb. 24 and yesterday.

"Although no one is happy with a 10 percent pay cut for teachers, we feel there are strong provisions for the district to get its act together and give teachers more say in what's going on," said Day Higuchi, vice president of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Under the Brown proposal, teachers at each campus will help make decisions regarding classroom aides, parking-space access, selection of program coordinators and deans, grade-level and class assignments, and more.

"There are lots of nonmonetary benefits in this package that we have been waiting for for a long time," Mr. Higuchi adds. "Not to accept this proposal might have meant the dissolution of the district."

"I hear a lot of anger among teachers [that] this is not going to be easy," said Jeffrey Lantos, a Hancock Park teacher. "There is a lot of bitterness. But if we don't accept it, where will we be?"

While Higuchi and others feel the LAUSD's breakup has been averted for now, they say the movement has gathered steam from the current strike controversy. Community debate is raging from editorial pages to talk radio: Will the breakup result in more or less bureaucracy and duplication of tasks? What kind of litigation over race and class divisions will ensue? Will a new era of community politicking overshadow curriculum concerns?

The newly fanned debate about school safety is related to finances and the district breakup. Money for new security staff and metal detectors would have to come from funds used for teachers and books, DiMarco says. And some teachers say a policy of transferring troubled students cross-town exacerbates already-tenuous classroom situations in which teachers feel uncomfortable because of gang members.

What is the lesson from this?

"You get what you pay for," says Higuchi, lamenting the state's 42nd rating in per-capita investment per pupil at $4,800 compared to New York City's $7,800. "There comes a point at which you can't perform."

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