AT the Manchester Avenue Elementary School lunchroom in South Central Los Angeles, teachers eagerly grab an opportunity to unload their list of complaints to a visiting reporter.
Rooms, hallways, tables, and chairs are becoming dilapidated. Class sizes are greater, more students are not proficient in English, and problems stemming from drugs, gangs, and broken families are increasing.
And the increasing percentage of kids from poor and ethnic backgrounds in recent years - the Manchester Avenue school is 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black - adds to the challenges teachers face.
The growth of violence as a problem in schools was underscored recently by two well-publicized killings by high school students toting handguns to school. Even the most innocent of students are found rationalizing the possession of guns as a necessary means of protection.
With this scenario as a backdrop, the teachers have been undermined dramatically, they say, by recent salary reductions.
To avoid a major strike, teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District in February accepted a 10-percent pay cut to help lower a $400 million district budget deficit.
Besides lowering morale and self-esteem, these teachers say, the pay cut is jeopardizing their own livelihood.
"People who should be dedicating themselves to working within the profession are now looking outside the educational field to just get by or [are getting] out altogether," says Barbara Alexander, a fifth-grade teacher and 32-year veteran of California public education.
With the state in recession and a looming state budget deficit, short-term relief does not appear at hand. Beyond questioning their own future in the profession, many teachers are concerned about the future of public education in this state, perhaps even the country.
"We are en route to a futuristic society in which education is totally antiquated," Ms. Alexander says. "If we continue in this vein, we are not going to have any teachers to teach these people."
"The bad situation that teachers are in here makes me really wonder if I shouldn't forget about teaching altogether," says Jovita Castillo, a kindergarten teacher who spent her first year jumping from classroom to classroom to fill in for absent teachers. Now she is covering full time for a teacher who departed in January, leaving one more of a growing number of classes without a regular teacher.
"I don't know how the administrators of this district can say that kids are priority 1," Ms. Castillo says.
Michael Mebs, a sixth-grade teacher, says his class size is the largest ever at 33 pupils; moreover, the number is frequently augmented by nine to 12 pupils from other classes because there is no money for substitute teachers.
"[The students from other classes] show up mid-morning, unannounced, with no idea of where you are in your program, and [they] expect to be entertained for the day," Mr. Mebs says. "Often they don't have any books or supplies and we have nowhere to seat them."
Ron Rubine, a fourth-grade teacher for seven years, shows his visitor a boys' room with no soap or towels. "How can you teach a young person about hygiene and cleanliness when your own school doesn't even have soap in the restrooms?" he asks.
Mr. Rubine also complains about an outdated textbook. "This health book is from 1965," he says, "the same one I used in fourth grade. The school board does all these public songs and dances about being committed to our precious children - and they give us outdated supplies like these?"
First-grade teacher Marsha Mason shows her guest a darkened classroom with loose floor tiling, rusted sink fixtures, and a carpeted recreational corner that is soaked with filthy water tracked in from the playground. The only carpeted area in the room, the corner is used for kids to sit and play with blocks, as well as to lie down for rest periods.
"All these things go back to the fact that education is becoming less and less of a priority in this state and country," says Jeanine Gilliard, a teacher of fourth and fifth grades.
"The priorities are money first and education somewhere else down the line," she says. "That is never more evident than now ... with presidential administrations that bail out the S&L crisis but that won't bail out an educational crisis."
ACCORDING to Maureen DiMarco, state secretary for child development and education, it has been costly concessions to the 40,000-strong teachers' union, United Teachers-Los Angeles, that brought the school district to its current fiscal crisis - how to make up a $400 million deficit in a $3.9 billion budget.
In 1988, the teachers won a total of 24 percent in raises, given in 8-percent increments over three years. During the 1980s, she says, the district granted 49-percent increases in cost-of-living adjustments and spent money at twice the rate it was coming in.
But teachers here at the Manchester Avenue school complain that much money went for equal increases in pay to clerical workers, bus drivers, custodians, and administrators in accordance with a "me-too" clause in district contracts.
"We did all the fighting for the money and they got all the benefit," Rubine says. "Yet they are not the ones dealing with the children's education."
While many teachers say they hope that the California state government will come to the rescue, most say they believe that is unlikely in the current fiscal climate.
The state's budget woes over the past two years have resulted in the two largest state deficits in American history, $14.5 billion in 1991 and $11.5 billion 1992. The projected shortfall for the current year's budget is more than $8 billion.
The Los Angeles school district "has to learn to live within its means," Secretary DiMarco says. "Or you need the public to indicate its willingness to help out, which it has not."