A state public employees commission on Thursday denied a demand from the teachers union to immediately halt the Los Angeles Unified School District's plans to increase class sizes as a way to save $70 million for the upcoming school year.
But the state panel has yet to rule whether the district's proposal to have 40 students in many middle- and high school classes violates labor contracts.
Robin Wesley, a staff attorney for the state Public Employment Relations Board, said United Teachers-Los Angeles had not proved the need for quick action. But she said there "still may be some merit" in the union's claim that the district must negotiate any rise in the number of students per class. No date was scheduled for a ruling, which can then be appealed administratively and then in court, Wesley said.
Meanwhile, the school board prepared to take drastic measures if the state panel prevents the district from increasing class sizes by two students in most classes in grades 4 through 12.
On Thursday, board members voted 5 to 2 to grant Supt. Roy Romer the authority to strip money from teachers' and administrators' salaries and benefits for next year in lieu of the savings that larger classes would produce. Romer said he was also concerned about additional shortfalls in state funding. The action increased tension between the board and the teachers union during salary negotiations.
Among other budget cuts, the district voted in April to increase class sizes so that fourth- and fifth-grade classes would average between 32 and 38 students; the average size of middle school classes would increase to 41 students; high school classes would range from 32 to more than 40.
Romer argued Thursday that he needed the authority to cut teachers' pay before Monday when state law locks in salaries. He said that he had to return to the board for approval before he exercised his new authority and that no cuts would be made unless they were absolutely necessary.
"If we get into further cuts, we're not just going to look at this source only," said Romer. "I want to, at all costs, avoid it--and I would like to still find funds to make sure that benefits are paid and salaries are competitive."
Voting against the action were board members Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky, who said Romer should have notified the board of the deadline earlier.
Members who supported the new authority for Romer said they approved it as a safeguard they hope won't be used.
"I think this is definitely the most prudent move to prepare for a worst-case scenario," said board member Mike Lansing.
That, of course, did not please the teachers union, which is starting to threaten a strike if health coverage is reduced.
"If what the district is trying to do is send us a message that they're playing hardball, it's just going to anger the teachers," said Day Higuchi, outgoing president of United Teachers-Los Angeles.
The district is trying to reduce spending by $430 million this year and has $9.7 million in cuts to go from its $5.9-billion general fund budget. But that does not include an estimated $30 million that Romer said he needs to be able to provide health coverage next year.
Union members have been the most outspoken critics of the increases in class size, saying that those will roll back students' recent standardized test score gains.
But two recent studies place more importance on well-trained teachers than on having fewer students per classroom.
A report by the Public Policy Institute of California went as far as to say that mandatory class size reductions in lower grades statewide actually led to poorer academic outcomes in some Los Angeles schools because the district hired more unqualified teachers to cover more classes.