State Controller Gray Davis said Monday that he intends to release $25 million to $30 million to the Los Angeles Unified School District as early as today to help cover the cost of settling its teachers contract.
Davis' move came as frustrated teachers began casting strike votes for the fourth time since October, an attempt to force the district to ratify a pact restoring 2% of their salaries and giving them more decision-making authority on campuses.
"We are trying to move heaven and earth to make sure every dollar that can legally be sent to the district is in fact sent," Davis said. "I believe it is essential we do everything possible to avert a strike."
"I'm certain the check will be in the district's hands soon," Davis said as his auditors reviewed a hastily submitted district claim to recoup about $65 million in unused desegregation funds.
Those additional funds, along with $10 million in increased lottery money, will give the district ample cash to pay the $36-million cost of the teachers contract this year, said Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who mediated the dispute and drafted the contract.
Once the money is delivered to the district, it will probably remove a legal challenge brought by a taxpayers group, freeing the school board to ratify the contract May 6, one day before the teachers union's renewed strike deadline.
The contract, tentatively approved by the school board Feb. 22, would return 2% of a cumulative 12% pay cut and strengthen teachers decision-making authority in schools. The board has resisted final ratification of the pact until Brown delivered on his promise to find the money to pay for it.
After considerable prodding by Brown and other state officials, the district last week decided to seek state reimbursement for money it failed to claim during the 1991-92 school year in connection with a court-approved desegregation program.
The claims include money spent on maintenance and construction, health care and security for students and schools involved in the desegregation program, Davis said. The money was allocated to the district but has never been claimed.
Budget Director Henry Jones said the district did not consider seeking reimbursement for those particular expenses this year because such claims had been rejected before.
The desegregation money will free up general fund dollars to cover the cost of the teachers contract.
Earlier Monday, school board President Leticia Quezada said she hoped the transaction with the state would be completed by Friday, enabling the district to fend off a legal challenge that has prevented the school board from ratifying the contract.
"The prospects are very good," Quezada said. "I want to reassure both the teachers and the parents of this community that I'm very hopeful and very confident that we will be able to meet the requirements of that contract by the end of the week."
The school board was prepared to ratify the contract April 19, but it was blocked in court by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which charged that the pact would violate state law and state constitutional prohibitions restricting local governments from spending more money than they have.
Joel Fox, president of the Jarvis group, said Monday that the group will drop the suit as soon as the district can prove it has the money.
United Teachers-Los Angeles leaders contend district officials and their attorneys dragged their feet on final ratification and that, with the legal obstacle ahead, they had little choice but to resort to another strike threat.
"This shows a lack of leadership in the district in making a decisive choice," said union spokeswoman Catherine Carey. "This has put the teachers through yet more days and weeks of stress."
Throughout the district Monday, angry teachers were casting strike ballots, with many echoing the refrain: "Enough is enough!"
"We're exhausted. We're sick of being jerked around," said Sandy Wolfson, a counselor at Roosevelt High School. "We've been on an emotional roller coaster for months and every time we think it's over we get another stab in the back."
At Robert Fulton Middle School in the San Fernando Valley, most of the school's 60 teachers had voted by the end of the school day.
"I'm just tired of working without a contract," said teacher Arnie Schwartz, who voted to strike. "It's just not fair."
Times staff writers Jerry Gillam in Sacramento and David Colker in the San Fernando Valley contributed to this story.