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School Board Ends Furlough Request

Cash-strapped L.A. Unified drops effort to have teachers take unpaid time off.

September 05, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

In a sign of renewed union clout, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted Thursday to rescind a previous decision to seek at least 2 1/2 unpaid furlough days from its more than 80,000 employees.

The board also moved to fully fund health-care benefits, an action that Supt. Roy Romer said the school district could not afford and that would trigger layoffs next year.

The 6-1 vote, with only board member Mike Lansing in opposition, would involve the spending of about $85 million.

Since July, the seven-member board has for the first time in four years a majority of members who were backed in their election bids by the United Teachers-Los Angeles union.

The new board on Thursday reversed a June action asking unions to agree to the furlough days, which would have saved the district about $35 million this year. Most employees were to be furloughed for 2 1/2 days, and those making more than $100,000 a year were to be furloughed for a workweek.

The previous board also sought to have employees bear more of the rising cost of health insurance. The Los Angeles Unified School District's health plan covers employees, their spouses and dependents without requiring the payment of a premium.

Teachers union President John Perez was the only person from the audience to address the board Thursday. Perez called the health coverage one of "the most attractive reasons for teachers and others to come work for the district" and urged the board not to change it.

According to L.A. Unified officials, health-care costs are projected to total more than $660 million this year and represent 9.8% of the district's general fund. Increases will cost the district an estimated $90 million over last year, and the school board previously left about $50 million of that unfunded in hopes the unions would agree to changes in the plan.

Most of the $85 million needed to fund the benefits and drop the furloughs will come from the district's reserves and some ending balance money, according to Romer. But the board charged him with finding the additional $25 million still needed for those steps.

Romer complained that he did not know where he would locate that money in a budget that has gone through many other cuts. He said he worried that the board's decision -- combined with some looming state funding reductions -- will plunge the district closer to a fiscal crisis next year. "We have used all our reserves," Romer said in an interview after the meeting. "I think it's not that prudent to run that close to the edge."

He noted that state law requires the district to replenish any emergency funds and that some of the trims made to reach a balanced budget this year were one-time savings that can not be repeated next year.

"I am not trying to be a Cassandra or a Chicken Little," Romer told the board. But he warned that the district may have to lay off as many as 4,000 employees next year.

He also directly addressed the union leaders in the audience. "I would like to ask you to look at this balance sheet," he said. "Do you want to begin to save some of those layoffs now?"

Lansing, the sole vote against the measure, blasted the board majority in an interview after the vote, contending they "are controlled by their UTLA sponsorship and don't have the independence to vote with what they think is right."

Board President Jose Huizar denied that charge. "It's a new board," he said. "The decisions that were made in June were decisions that were made with two previous board members.... Yes, UTLA is more influential this year. But it's a different board that is setting priorities for themselves."

He and other board members said that they voted for the measure because pay raises are unlikely and they thought the district should place a higher value on the role that all employees play in the education of the district's nearly 800,000 students.

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