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School District Offers Teachers Early Out : Education: L.A.'s money-saving retirement plan draws criticism because instructors would have to leave by Nov. 27, three weeks before the end of the semester.

November 09, 1991|HENRY CHU and SANDY BANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In another last-ditch attempt to save money for the cash-starved school system, Los Angeles Unified School District officials have instituted an early retirement program for teachers that will cut the district's payroll costs, but threatens to disrupt the education of thousands of schoolchildren.

The plan, devised by the district and the teachers union, offers cash bonuses to more than 500 veteran teachers if they retire at the end of this month--three weeks before the end of the semester. The timing has upset many of the potential retirees, who will be replaced in their classrooms by instructors who would be unfamiliar with their students.

"I can't imagine why the (school) board would think about letting teachers go before the end of the semester," said Martin Bercow, a print shop teacher at San Fernando High School. "I sure hope there's a good reason for it."

District officials say the reason is simple: money. The school system stands to save about $650,000 by releasing teachers on Nov. 27--the day before the Thanksgiving holidays--rather than holding them over through Dec. 20, the last day of the term.

The early retirement offer is among the strategies the district is employing to balance its budget, the most controversial of which has been a 3% pay cut for all employees.

Under the retirement plan, which was adopted by the school board last week, certificated employees who are 55 or older with at least 15 years' experience in the district are eligible for early retirement. Of the 600 spots available, 523 are reserved for teachers and 77 for administrators. They will be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.

The district began to accept applications on Wednesday and had received about 450 by the end of Thursday.

The program will allow the district to replace veteran teachers, who average about $52,000 a year, with entry-level instructors, who make about $34,000 annually. Those who opt for early retirement will receive a cash bonus equal to 40% of their salary--about $21,000 on average.

"We feel it's a very attractive incentive (program)," said Tom Killeen, district administrator for personnel services. "There are a lot of people who are looking for this type of incentive and looking for an early retirement."

But several teachers who have applied for the package said the district's insistence on the Nov. 27 exit date shows a greater concern for money than for students' welfare.

Students would be given new teachers who will scarcely have time to learn their names or become familiar with their academic track records. Some classes that will be affected already have gone through several teachers over the past few months.

"The board is only interested in saving as much money as they can at the expense of teachers and students, and not at the expense of the overloaded administration," complained Jim Underwood, a history and health teacher at James Madison Junior High School. "Everything is guided by dollars and cents."

Killeen said the bonus package will cost the district about $7 million, but will pay for itself by mid-1992 by reducing the district's payroll.

Although the teachers union helped develop the retirement plan, United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein criticized the district's timing, saying the program could have been launched months ago to minimize disruption of classes.

"I'm glad the teachers are getting the bonus, and I'm glad younger people are replacing them," Bernstein said. "It's just so reprehensible the way this district operates--to do it in a way that's going to be so disruptive to the students.

She said she had suggested that retiring teachers be allowed to remain until the end of the semester.

District officials called the Nov. 27 retirement date necessary for the plan to be cost-effective.

"If you kept somebody at the top of the pay scale for a month, through December, then you wouldn't be having cost savings," said employment operations administrator Michael Acosta, whose office is evaluating the applications, which were distributed to 6,000 employees. "It'd be a wash."

But board President Warren Furutani said Friday he voted to approve the package last Monday under the assumption that replacement teachers--most likely pulled from the ranks of those laid off earlier this year--would not be brought in until after the winter recess.

"I'm surprised," he said. "My understanding all along was that the changeover would be done at the end of the semester. It makes sense to do it that way."

Furutani said the cash saved from releasing teachers earlier "won't make that much of a difference, because the real savings accrue in the second and third year."

"The last thing we need is more disruption in the schools," he said. "With all the problems we've been through this year, we should be trying to stabilize things as much as possible for the children."

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