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Risk for L.A.'s Schools

Supt. Romer promises that a teacher salary increase won't come from money gouged out of education. But will that vow hold water next year?

February 25, 2001

Roy Romer, head of the Los Angeles school system, has made a vow that all students, parents, teachers--and school board members--should examine closely. Only "over [his] dead body" will classroom instruction and textbook purchases be cut to pay for a salary increase for teachers. Excellent. But how can he or any future superintendent keep such a promise in coming years? Romer concedes that proposed savings and budget cuts would cover a pay raise for only a year.

The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract with an 11% pay raise. The deal, which includes almost no accountability givebacks by teachers, would push the district more than $100 million over the amount budgeted this year for a salary increase. The three-year contract also allows United Teachers-Los Angeles to negotiate for an additional raise next year. Of course, teachers need and deserve substantially higher pay, but it should come with increasing accountability and at a rational pace.

Challenged to explain how the district can pay for an 11% raise without curtailing its reading program, math instruction, teacher training, textbook purchases, remedial education and other academic priorities, Romer makes a persuasive case. On paper.

In past years, the school district budget was unfathomable to outsiders. Money was hidden by administrators to keep it off the table during contract negotiations and to preserve a stash for when the board or superintendent wanted something new. The confusion began clearing three years ago. To pay the teachers more, Romer will need to keep track of every dollar.

In anticipation of Tuesday's vote, Romer and the district's new financial team say they've found enough cuts and savings from the $8.8-billion annual budget to cover the raise for a year. Many of the trims make sense, like a hiring freeze for all nonschool offices, salary savings from elimination of unnecessary temporary support staff and a reduction in consultants. However, Romer's plan would also divert $20 million from textbook funds that he says would otherwise go unspent this year. The district has already spent $123 million on new books, more than five times the amount paid out last year. Based on that investment and a $10-million reserve, Romer says no student should be without a book. That is not now the reality in some classrooms.

The plan would also take $5 million in unspent funds from the district reading program, which has boosted test scores in the early grades. Unspent funds or not, that will be a hard sell in a district where the majority of students still cannot read at grade level.

Some state lottery money would go to the raises, but what will happen if lottery proceeds dry up later?

Remember 1993? Teachers took a 10% pay cut when a deep recession drastically reduced state revenues and Sacramento passed the losses to school districts. Back then, the Los Angeles Unified School District could not make good on a 24% pay raise over three years, which the school board had approved in 1989 after teachers went on strike. The bitterness over the unkept promise has lasted, even though the losses have been made up.

Strike talk is being heard again this year, the threat more palpable in the wake of walkouts by janitors, the Screen Actors Guild and MTA workers. Romer believes the proposed contract can avert a strike without cannibalizing instruction. He may be right if he can successfully lobby Washington and Sacramento for a steep increase in funds. But Romer, going hat in hand to the governor and president, should remember the old proverb: If wishes were horses, beggars might ride.

Four school board members support the proposed contract. Before they vote, Victoria Castro, Valerie Fields, Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky should ask themselves: Is the district making another promise that can't be kept?

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