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Private School Picket: The Loyal Opposition at 64

February 02, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Norman Frank has been teaching at Polytechnic School in Pasadena for 28 years. The private school's brochure includes a photograph of the eighth-grade algebra teacher, thin and bespectacled, helping a student "unravel a knotty problem," as the caption puts it.

But every school morning nowadays you'll find him standing near the school's administration building, on Wilson Avenue, with a picket sign proclaiming: "Polytechnic School Unfair." In smaller print, the sign explains that Polytechnic uses a "two-tiered discriminatory pay scale."

In essence, Frank is concerned that the salaries of beginning teachers increase at a smaller rate than those for more experienced teachers.

This is a selfless protest, Frank will tell you, pausing in his back-and-forth trek along the sidewalk. Frank, who is 64, will retire at the end of the school year. Salary changes are of no personal consequence to him. Besides, with 35 years experience, he already earns more money than the top rung of the school's salary schedule because of annual cost-of-living increases.

Amused Tolerance

"I'm a screaming idealist," says Frank, handing you a copy of a tract titled "Economic Democracy and Economic Justice."

Frank's two months of protest has been met at Polytechnic with amused tolerance by the school administration ("It's Norman's last cannon and he's firing it," said one school official) and by earnest disagreement from some of his colleagues. For the most part, however, Frank has been greeted on Polytechnic's 15-acre campus with shoulder-shrugging indifference, even from fellow teachers whose cause he is championing.

The other day, a staff member left a note in his mail box, complimenting him for having "the courage to stand up for what you believe in."

"I don't get a lot of those," said Frank, who describes himself as a committed unionist who has had no success in building support for a union at Polytechnic. "It charges my batteries and keeps me going. Without things like that, I don't think I'd stop. But there are times when I feel a little down."

The algebra teacher's current crusade is difficult to understand, he acknowledges, unless you are an underpaid teacher in a private school, sweating over nickels and dimes. It has to do with the way annual salary increments are figured.

In some California public schools, during a teacher's first 12 or 15 years on a job, a teacher's salary goes up annually according to a structured salary ladder. At the end of that time, in most cases, the teacher's base salary has doubled. The rapid increases represent a kind of perquisite for underpaid younger teachers, serving to keep them on the job. Negotiated salary increases or cost of living adjustments are stacked on to the old increments.

"The increments are compensation for increases in teacher productivity," says Frank.

But at Polytechnic, teachers with less than 18 years' experience advance less rapidly than those with more than 18 years on the job. For example, a teacher, upon completing his seventh year on the job, goes from $25,805 to $26,595, a 3.2% increase. But upon completing his 27th year, he goes from $37,716 to $39,645, a 5.1% increase.

The result is a two-tiered system, with younger teachers in effect receiving cost-of-living increases of between 2% and 3%, Frank says, while teachers who have passed the 18-year mark receive between 5% and 6%. At Polytechnic, top scale among the 85-member faculty is $40,161 after 30 years. The comparable salary in the Los Angeles district is $43,064.

'Pioneer' for 25 Years

What the faculty really needs, argues the lonely picketer, is salary negotiations. "If we had collective bargaining, they wouldn't push us around the way they do," Frank said.

Alexander B. Babcock, headmaster at the 81-year-old school, shakes his head indulgently. "Norman has been a pioneer for improving faculty salaries ever since I met him 25 years ago," he said.

He conceded that public schools usually pay better than private ones like the prestigious Polytechnic, which, like its neighbor Caltech, evolved from the Throop Polytechnic Institute. "It depends on which system you're looking at, but generally speaking, Norman is absolutely right," said Babcock.

Polytechnic has a student body of 810, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

As for Frank's description of the two-tiered system? "Believe me, I've spent a year on this and I still don't understand it," Babcock said.

Carl West, a member of the school's board of trustees, also expressed mystification at Frank's position. "We take all the dollars available and squeeze out some that are not available, then we apply them across the board to the overall salary schedule," West said.

West also contended that there was little support for collective bargaining among the faculty. "By and large, it's a very satisfied faculty," he said. "I think they recognize that the board does everything it can."

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