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Compton Teachers Strike; Schools Open

Education: Officials vow that graduations and final exams won't be affected.


Compton school officials, seeking to reassure parents and students, said Monday that a teachers' strike in the troubled district would not affect graduations or final exams.

Substitute teachers and administrators took on emergency teaching duties as the strike began. In many cases, classes had to be doubled up.

Complicating the resolution of the work stoppage was that state education officials, who took control of the district three years ago, must approve any contract agreement.

Negotiators were scheduled to resume talks later Monday night. Both sides said they believed that an agreement is close.

The president of Compton's Board of Education voiced concern that without regular teachers in the classroom, the schools would be more dangerous for the district's 28,000 pupils.

"It is a danger to have students in a district where there is no supervision," school board President Saul Lankster warned at an early afternoon news conference. "Our teachers are our front line when it comes to security."

About 860 of the district's 1,080 teachers took to the picket lines three days after contract negotiations broke down over wages and benefits. They have not had a raise in five years in a district plagued by budget shortfalls.

The strike was the second job action this year by the teachers, who have been working without a contract for more than a year. In February, about two-thirds of the city's teachers called in sick for one day after contract negotiations stalled.

The major sticking points are benefits and the contract's length.

Teachers also said Monday that they are striking to protest state control, which they said has done little to improve the district.

"The exact nature of the strike is not just salary and benefits," said Mildred Bettinger, a spokeswoman for the teachers' union. "It's also a matter of respect, fairness and justice."

This is the latest in a series of events that has marked the Compton Unified School District as one of the most trouble-plagued in the nation.

So dire were its academics and finances that state lawmakers not only voted to take over the district and loan it $20 million, but also stripped the school board of any power and appointed an administrator to oversee the district.

The teachers, however, contend that instead of getting better, the district has gotten worse, partly because teachers have left in droves because of no raises and deteriorating conditions.

Two years ago, as part of the state takeover, teachers in the district agreed to a 3% pay cut. As part of this year's contract, the state has agreed to 4% raises and a 4% bonus for the teachers, but has asked them to take a cut in their benefits. That, teacher representatives say, would mean little net increase over what they were making before the voluntary pay cuts two years ago.

"It's difficult to attract new teachers to this district," said Harold Stone, president of the Compton Education Assn., the teachers' union. "Teachers took the 3% pay cut two years ago on the condition that the school district make improvements in the schools for the students and to create better working and learning conditions.

"Instead, the schools are literally falling apart, with roofs caving in, exposed wires in classrooms, outdated instructional materials, boarded-up windows, locked student bathrooms and many other problems."

Richard Whitmore, the state deputy superintendent for finance, planning and technology, said the proposed increase in wages would more than offset the extra benefit costs that teachers would have to pay.

At a morning news conference, district spokeswoman Christine Sanchez, while making assurances about graduation and finals, acknowledged that it would be impossible to find substitutes for all the striking teachers.

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