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Los Angeles

Union Fights Increases in Class Sizes

Schools: Teachers oppose cost-cutting plan that would raise the number of students, saying the district must first negotiate.

June 21, 2002|DUKE HELFAND and SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles teachers union is fighting a cost-cutting proposal to increase class sizes to 40 or more students in the secondary grades.

United Teachers-Los Angeles has filed a complaint with a state labor board alleging unfair practice, accusing the Los Angeles Unified School District of illegally deciding to expand classes without negotiating the changes.

The union on Tuesday asked the state Public Employment Relations Board to seek a court injunction halting the district's plan to add two students to most classes in grades four to 12.

The class-size changes, adopted by the Board of Education in April for a saving of $70 million, are scheduled to start next month in more than 200 year-round schools. It will be extended to the entire district in the fall.

The employment board is expected to consider the injunction request next week.

Union officials said that larger classes would unduly burden teachers and possibly put those who work with emotionally disturbed children in harm's way.

"This will decrease the amount of attention students can get from teachers," said the union president, Day Higuchi.

District officials say that the teachers' contract allows them to increase class sizes without negotiating if there are state funding cuts, as has happened in recent months.

Even so, officials argue that virtually all the larger classes will remain within the various limits for different grades mandated by the teachers' contract.

Under the district's plan, fourth and fifth grade classes would average between 32 and 38; the average size of middle school classes would increase to 41 students; the average size of most high school classes would range from 32 to more than 40.

Special education classes, which serve as few as three students, also would increase by two.

"In our view, we had some room to expand class sizes under the contract," said Hal Kwalwasser, the district's general counsel. "It doesn't require negotiation."

The fight over class sizes--and money for teacher raises--also is flaring on another front.

Union leaders have refused to help the district select teachers to serve as literacy and math coaches in schools. Higuchi said these veteran instructors should remain in classrooms to keep class sizes down, saving the district money for teacher health benefits and raises.

Supt. Roy Romer credits the coaching program with improving students' test scores in recent years. Higuchi says the effort has been poorly administered.

The two sides continued to squabble Thursday, even as the Board of Education approved $4.8 million in cuts to help cover an estimated $430 million shortfall.

The district's budget gap is the result of rising costs for special education and worker's compensation and cuts in state funding.

L.A. Unified will save $4.5 million from a program that gives bonuses to teachers who acquire special certification. The district will use state and federal grants instead. The same approach will save an additional $300,000 used for athletics administrators' salaries.

L.A. Unified still has to shave $10 million to balance its $5.9-billion general fund budget. In addition, Romer said, the district will need to find $30 million to pay for the rising cost of teachers' health benefits.

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