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A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 6: The Teachers : Cutting Their Losses in the Classroom

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

The day of reckoning arrived in early November.

Singly and in informal pairs, like herd animals going down to the river in the evening, teachers streamed into the office after school and scooped up their pay envelopes from atop the heavy wooden counter.

They had done this many times before and didn't vary their routine or their lightly jovial manner just because they knew this time there was something nasty inside the plain white envelopes.

Still, when they pulled the checks out and exposed them to the air, it was as though the paper gave off a foul odor. Several faces wrinkled in disgust and some even responded with shocked intakes of breath and mumbled curses.

"Do I have to get out my glasses to read my pay stub?" asked Marilyn Hayes, the gym teacher, her visor low on her forehead and her silver and black hair streaming over it.

"You probably owe them money," a fellow teacher said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District began the 1992-93 school year with a $400-million deficit, a product of California's sagging economy. In an attempt to close that gap, the Board of Education voted on June 26 to cut the salaries of district employees, including 35,000 teachers, by nearly $250 million.

This worked out to a 12% cumulative pay cut, including a 3% cut imposed the previous year.

Although the pay cut still left teachers 12% above where they were in 1989, when they won a 24% raise spread over three years, they reacted with predictable anger to the possibility of losing their hard-won benefits and threatened to strike. It had taken a bitter, nine-day strike that ground education to a halt to force the school board to grant the big raise.

Many of the teachers at Northridge were veterans of earlier job actions and faced the prospect of another strike with grim determination as well as a certain amount of dread. Frank Randa knew the teachers would probably face a lot of wrath. Because everybody was suffering hard times these days, there was likely to be much less sympathy for teachers, whose average salary in 1991 was $44,966.

That sounded like a lot of money. And it was true that some of the older teachers on campus had done well by themselves on the district salary. Bruce Faunce had a condo in Palm Springs and Frank Eichorn had a ranch in Thousand Oaks and several rental properties.

Rich Dunner owned an apartment building in Beverly Hills. When the jury in the federal Rodney G. King civil rights trial retired to begin deliberations, he made it clear that he would protect his investment. "I've got 400 rounds of ammunition stored up," he whispered to a visitor after preaching racial harmony to his advisory class.

But none of the younger teachers were buying apartment buildings, now that housing prices, even in the recession, were 680% higher than they were only 20 years ago.

Vanessa Culp, at 28 one of the younger teachers, looked for months and all she could afford was a condominium in North Hollywood. Even then, she had to get her two sisters to come in on the deal with her.

Now, with the pay cut, everyone was trying to find new ways to cut $500 a month out of their household budget.

"I'm going back to living poor," said Wilma Hitchins, who teaches a class for the trainable mentally retarded. "We think twice before we go to a movie or eat out."

Many teachers already had second jobs. Ronn Yablun ran a learning center called Mathamazement. Judi Levin made and sold wedding invitations and taught adult school on Saturdays. Walt Uchiek said he would probably try to open a small boutique to sell some of his handmade clothing.

Then there were the teachers who were so fed up they were planning to leave the district. Laurice Harris, a short woman with a deep laugh who teaches computer skills, came out from Indiana four years ago to get married. "It fell through, the bum," she said, laughing sardonically.

She had since soured on the California Dream. Her school in Indiana had lessons beamed in from Arizona. She had a color printer for the computers. Here, it took two years to get a pencil sharpener in her room.

After much fussing and fuming and angry denunciations between teachers and the district, it came down to a Tuesday in early December, when teachers across Los Angeles would vote on the new contract, with its 12% pay cut. If they rejected it, a strike was likely.

A new strike was bound to open old wounds left over from the 1989 strike.

"We were just to the point where people were starting to say hello to each other again and this happens," Eichorn said miserably. He did not join the strike in 1989.

The old hurt feelings spilled out at lunch before the vote that Tuesday in December.

"I've got a sick wife," Eichorn said. "We have an $800,000 bill at Kaiser for her leukemia treatments. She says, 'No way!' on a strike. 'We need that check.' "

He looked around hopefully. "I'll go out three days to show solidarity."

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