In a move intended to ease friction, leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District's largest unions met privately Tuesday to discuss how to participate in money-saving proposals that they hope will fend off future attacks on employees' salaries.
Several union leaders viewed the meeting as a significant step toward restoring frayed relations among the district's employee unions, four of which formed an unusual alliance earlier this year against United Teachers-Los Angeles, the largest of the bargaining groups.
"It's significant. We haven't talked to each other in six months," said Connie Moreno of the California School Employees Assn., which represents 5,000 district clerical and support employees. The meeting brought together representatives of half a dozen unions, including teachers, administrators, school district police and service workers.
The meeting took place as district teachers--confronted with a pay cut that would reduce their earnings by 12% over two years--began casting votes Tuesday that could authorize a strike if ongoing contract negotiations fail. The results could be announced late Thursday.
District employees have been socked with painful pay cuts this year--teachers among the hardest hit--spawning tensions between an alliance of four of the districts' bargaining units and the UTLA. Fearful that the teachers union could win favorable treatment, the alliance has argued for an equitable spread of pay reductions among all employees.
Last month the board approved pay cuts ranging from 6.5% to 11.5% for the majority of employees. The cuts would be taken primarily through unpaid furlough days.
Key to the ongoing negotiations with the district and the unions has been the distribution of future funds. The teachers union has taken the lead in pressing for revenue-boosting measures to cushion their salary cuts this year and prevent future pay cuts.
The measures include improving teacher attendance to cut down on sick pay and substitute teacher costs and increasing student attendance because the district does not receive state money for unexcused pupil absences.
School board members said they will not commit unknown amounts of savings to unions, including the UTLA. Early school budget predictions show a $95-million shortfall for the next school year, which would come on top of this year's unprecedented $400 million in budget cuts.
"In the past this district has gotten into problems because of making future year commitments that are beyond our ability to control," said school board member Mark Slavkin. "There is great concern about entering this sort of agreement. We are trying to avoid making promises that are beyond our ability to meet."
At Tuesday's meeting, the union leaders talked about ways their memberships could contribute to the proposed cost-saving efforts, whether by reducing their own absenteeism or encouraging students not to skip class.
"This will be significant if we continue meeting," said Eli Brent, president of the 2,000-member Associated Administrators of Los Angeles union. "The Board of Education would love to have some sort of communal understanding" between us.
School board member Jeff Horton agreed, saying that he is encouraged by the unions' efforts. Although he said the district "would be crazy" to guarantee that salaries will be restored next year or protected from cuts, "what we can do is commit to work to find savings and to work politically to maximize what (funding) we get from the Legislature."
School district officials said Tuesday they hope to complete negotiations with the clerical and service unions by the end of the week by offering a contract in which employees would take salary cuts, but would be eligible to apply for state unemployment benefits for the unpaid furlough days. The negotiations with the teachers union continued with no predictions from either side about the outcome.
The state program, called work share, was designed to encourage employers to furlough rather than lay off employees. It is funded by employer payroll contributions to the state unemployment insurance fund. Employees would be eligible for up to $46 a day.
Moreno said the program was widely supported by members of her union, as a way to cushion their pay cuts. Teacher union negotiators said they are determining whether their members would be eligible for the program.