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Contract Talks Begin With District, Teachers at Odds Over Restoring Pay : Labor: School officials say they may be able to afford only a partial salary increase. Union leaders have threatened a strike.


Leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District and the teachers union began face-to-face contract talks Tuesday but the two sides appeared to be far apart on the key issue: restoring a 10% cut in teachers' salaries.

Meeting in offices at the United Way near Downtown, officials on both sides said they planned to spend at least two days hashing out the pay issue. Teachers union leaders, who have threatened to strike when school starts in the fall, said they are seeking restoration of the 10% cut from teachers' pay over the last three years--which would cost the district $139 million.

"We're going in to ask for the full restoration of our salaries," United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein said as she entered the meeting rooms. "I'm saying that our teachers deserve to be adequately compensated for the work that they do with L.A. Unified."

District officials say that giving back part of the lost wages may be possible, but Supt. Sid Thompson said the school system could not afford a double-digit boost. "I don't see that in the package," Thompson said before talks began Tuesday morning. "Somehow (that's) a little bit of stretch when the state gave us nothing."

Board of Education President Mark Slavkin, who is representing the school board in the talks, was less pessimistic. "Absolutely, we're trying to restore salaries," Slavkin said. "It's a question of how much we think is there and how much they'll accept."

The talks got off to a noisy start--school district officials began rearranging the tables and chairs to face the union team. "I guess we're getting closer," Slavkin quipped as he helped move a table.

The district had seven representatives, including Thompson and Slavkin, at the table. The union had an eight-member team, including Bernstein and two accountants. For the first time, the district did not have lawyers at the bargaining table, a move that union leaders applauded as a step toward promoting a more positive tone during negotiations.

Tuesday's meeting, which is scheduled to continue today, marks the first round of contract negotiations since last year's labor dispute, when state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown stepped in as mediator. A strike was narrowly averted when teachers agreed to take a 10% pay cut for two years.

Although school board members say money is available in the district's $4.2-million budget for at least a partial salary restoration, union leaders say they have proof that enough money exists for a substantial reimbursement. Union leaders arrived at the session armed with an audit that they said shows money is available from a variety of sources.

Bernstein, who represents 32,000 teachers, nurses, counselors and school psychologists, refused to release details of the audit. "We are very prepared, as you can see," she said, displaying a thick binder marked "Confidential," "to go into bargaining in good faith to make sure we can restore the salaries."

The union spent about $70,000 for the audit, which was intended to identify possible accounts and reserves that could be used for teachers' pay. The audit, conducted by an outside accounting firm, took more than four months to complete.

Last year the district cut most employees' salaries by 10%. Restoring those wages would cost $200 million.

District officials already have identified a possible $116 million for a partial pay restoration. But they said they are still waiting to hear from the state on the availability of some of those funds and that they could be barred from using that money for ongoing salary expenditures.

Of that $116 million, nearly $42 million comes from the employees' health benefit account, about $54 million would come from the state reimbursement of integration claims and $7 million from higher lottery revenues. About $8 million would be rolled over from last year's budget and another $5 million could come from reimbursed earthquake repair costs.

But school board members, who plan to meet Thursday in a closed session to review contract talks, said they are concerned about using the one-time reimbursements for ongoing salary costs. They said they want to be sure the money will be available over several years so that cuts do not have to be made in the district's tightly balanced budget.

In addition, the board members said they want the negotiations on a fast track to avoid a protracted labor dispute. "People in Los Angeles are really tired of hearing about the dispute between the district and the teachers," said board member Leticia Quezada. "The public really does not want that to continue."

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