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School Workers Brace for Cuts and Hope to Survive


Diane Zavala, a typist at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, told her mother that she may have to move back home. Andre Giacomelli, an electronics inspector who has worked 32 years in the Los Angeles school district, says he will probably have to delay retirement. And Terri Arnold, an elementary school principal, says she has begun teaching lessons in thrift to her 4-year-old child.

"When I went into (this profession), I knew I was not going to make a fortune," said Arnold, who like thousands of other school employees is facing a pay loss because of massive budget cuts. "But I never thought I'd be taking steps backwards."

Such is the grim outlook taking hold on the front lines of the nation's second-largest public school system.

As Los Angeles Unified School District leaders struggle to assess the impact of the newly signed state budget, their employees are facing pay cuts believed to be the worst suffered by any school system in the nation. As they wait to see when--and how deep--the cuts will be, they contemplate how to survive.

District officials eliminated offices and slashed positions in June to help make up a $400-million shortfall and bring this year's $3.9-billion budget into balance. But the bulk of the fiscal burden is being placed on the district's more than 58,000 employees, who have been asked to take pay cuts ranging from 6% to 16.5%.

The district's work force, the fourth-largest in the county, includes about 30,000 teachers, counselors and librarians, about 24,000 carpenters, secretaries, custodians and other classified employees, and about 4,000 principals and other administrative employees with teaching certificates working outside the classroom.

The proposed pay cuts, to be achieved through a combination of unpaid days off and reductions in base salary, would be in addition to a 3% pay cut imposed on workers last year. The district is also proposing changes in employee medical coverage to save about $23 million.

Supt. Bill Anton has explained that the pay cuts are being offered as an alternative to massive layoffs and that the plan, which divides employees into four tiers, is designed to inflict the least pain on the lowest-paid workers.

Nonetheless, the specter of pay cuts has caused unprecedented tensions within the mammoth school system, pitting union against union and worker against supervisor. Mayor Tom Bradley has offered to help mediate to avoid a potential teachers strike, and former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp is chairing an independent commission that will review district finances and report its initial findings this month.

While negotiations continue behind the scenes, those whose lives could be affected are bracing themselves for hardships they fear are coming. "Starve a little now," a commentary in a recent issue of United Teachers-Los Angeles' newspaper warned, "so you can manage to survive if the worst comes to pass."

Diane Zavala, the school office worker, said she is trying to get ready for hard times. But "it's kind of like an earthquake," she said. "You try to prepare for it but you don't know how big it's going to be. It's scary, just waiting."

Money was scarce enough this past year, said Zavala, a single mother who went to work for the school system six years ago after being laid off by a nonprofit foundation. She struggles to support herself and her 11-year-old daughter on wages of $12.30 an hour. After the rent, insurance and car payment, Zavala said, she is left with about $100 until the next payday, a month away.

Now, facing a possible 11.5% drop in pay, Zavala says she knows things can only get worse. She postponed her June wedding until she is more certain of her financial situation. She took out a loan to pay off the debts on her credit cards. And she has warned her landlord she may not be able to give much notice if she suddenly has to move.

"If worse comes to worst, I can go home and live with five other people in a two-bedroom house," Zavala said. "I'm not going to be homeless. I have family. But there are a lot of people who have nowhere to go."

Terri Arnold, principal of Pacific Palisades Elementary School, is also a single mother. She earns more than Zavala--about $60,000 a year--but she is no less worried.

"The preschool doesn't understand that you don't have money after they cut your salary 17%," said Arnold, who pays $410 a month for her daughter's day care. "I have no backup. I've got to make it work."

Arnold began to strategize in April after learning about the severity of the district's budget crunch. She refinanced her home to lower her mortgage payment and bought a computer so she could supplement her income by doing word processing. Arnold also sat her young daughter down for a lesson she never thought she'd have to teach so soon.

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