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Board, Union Leaders OK Contract Terms for Teachers

August 28, 1994|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

A chaotic Los Angeles teachers strike will likely be averted with the Board of Education's approval Saturday of a new contract offer that restores 8% of the 10% salary cut teachers have suffered for two years, union leaders said.

In a series of swift-moving actions throughout the day, a state mediator released a settlement proposal, board and union meetings were hastily convened, and leaders for both sides accepted the terms of the pact.

Shortly before 6 p.m., the school board announced in a brief public session their 6-0 vote to present the one-year contract offer to the 32,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles. School board member Barbara Boudreaux was absent.

Teachers union President Helen Bernstein fell just short of whole-hearted endorsement of the package because a full restoration was not offered, but called the proposal a "significantly better change from the previous district offer."

"I believe that teachers should be getting all their money back, plus a raise. But this is a step forward," she said. "I know no one wants a strike. I think the average teacher is going to say, 'I should not have had the pay cut in the first place . . . but at least I know I work for a district trying to go in the right direction.' "

Bernstein said she will put the offer to a vote of her membership shortly after most schools open Sept. 12.

Saturday's developments culminated nearly three weeks of intense, fast-paced labor negotiations that were widely viewed as a litmus test on whether education leaders could for once free themselves of what have been perennially long, divisive labor disputes and instead concentrate on reforming beleaguered public schools.

It was two years ago that severe district budget deficits led to an unprecedented 10% teacher pay cut that badly demoralized instructors in the nation's second-largest school district. But in the midst of a recession, teachers did not strike over the cut. And the school board pledged to make salary restoration their top priority this year.

"This offer is clearly a compromise and clearly requires us to stretch our finances," said school board President Mark Slavkin. "But most of all there are positive signs that this settles the matter. I think we can now go forward this school year focusing on instruction and reform rather than labor negotiations."

After three days of intense meetings with both sides, state mediator Draza Mrvichin crafted an offer that supported most of the union's demands, but also gave the district a key win--it only has to guarantee a 4% salary restoration next year.

Although Mrvichin did not agree that the district could afford a full 10% salary restoration this year, union leaders say they believe the offer contains enough incentives to satisfy their rank and file.

"Teachers will weigh the option of going on strike or turning down 8% in their pockets this year," Bernstein said. "Members have a right to vote this down, but I just don't get a sense that will happen."

Originally the district had proposed a 7% salary restoration plan that included a 4% permanent give-back and a 3% one-year only payment. The school board had also stipulated that all seven of the district's unions had to first agree to use a $42 million health benefit surplus for salaries--a contingency that teachers called unfair.

The offer includes:

* A 4% permanent and a 4% one-year contract restoration, with a promise from the district to continue the restoration in the 1995-96 school year if the money is available.

This provision is a significant win for the district. Strict state education finance laws prohibit the district from paying for ongoing salaries with funds that are available during one fiscal year. The district's original offer of a permanent 4% pay restoration was supported by the mediator.

However, Mrvichin sided with the union, saying that the district could squeeze more money out of this year's $4.2-billion budget for a 1% increase, which school officials say will cost about $21 million.

Supt. Sid Thompson said it will be difficult for the district to find the extra funds, but there are indications that several expenditures--including utilities--will not be as high as projected.

* The teachers union would be able to take their share of the health benefit fund, about $33 million, and use it for their salaries without the permission of other unions--a big win for teachers.

The union has long been opposed to bargaining that links their contract talks in any way to the district's six other unions. Bernstein said this provision ensures that her rank and file receive a solid, one-year contract.

For the district, this recommendation could complicate their negotiations with other unions. Already, two of them--the school police and clerical workers--have rejected use of health benefit funds for salaries. Instead, they want to use the health surplus as a hedge against future increases in health benefit costs.

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