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Detroit Teachers Return; Mediator Steps In

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Detroit--The nation's seventh-largest school district was back in session last Tuesday after school officials and striking teachers agreed to take their differences to binding arbitration.

The 11,000-member Detroit Federation of Teachers (dft) voted Tuesday morning to return to work. Classes began that afternoon for the first time since teachers walked out on Sept. 14. The strike was the nation's largest this fall.

"I realize a lot of our people are unhappy with the agreement," said John M. Elliott, president of the teachers' union. "I'm not entirely happy with it myself. But I think people must realize that this is the best we could get in these economic times and under these circumstances."

Last week's voice vote by teachers was only the first step toward ratification. Teachers will fill out secret ballots in the schools this week. If they reject the agreement, the strike will resume, Mr. Elliott said.

'Fact-Finder' Appointed

The three-week-long walkout ended when the Detroit school board and teachers decided their longstanding contract differences could be settled only by a third party. Under their agreement, teachers will return to work at last year's salaries, while a state-appointed "fact-finder" rules on 15 other contract provisions, including:

Vacation pay. The board had asked teachers to sacrifice eight days of vacation pay this year and to be paid for those days when they quit or retired from the district. Teachers countered with an offer to give up four days' pay but be reimbursed at the rate of one day per year starting in 1984.

Salary increments. The board wants to drop the annual "step" raises given to teachers with 12 or fewer years of experience. About 32 percent of Detroit's teachers are eligible for the raises, which amount to about $1,000 per teacher.

Class size. The board wants a 35-student cap on class size increased to 37.

Substitutes. The board wants to remove a longtime provision in the teachers' contract obliging the district to hire "all available substitutes" from the ranks of laid-off teachers.

Other issues before the fact-finder include health insurance, longevity pay for veteran teachers, and creation of an early-retirement program.

The Detroit school board had originally asked teachers to take 9-percent salary cuts in order to save the district $23 million in the next year.

Teachers refused to make any salary concessions and said they doubted the board's claim that the 200,000-student district faces a $60-million deficit this year.

In agreeing to take the contract to arbitration, school officials warned of the possi-bility of layoffs and program cuts.

"If the teachers win, we all lose," said George Bell, president of the school board. "We have to deal with our deficit somehow. If it means we have to lay off teachers, the dft will emerge from arbitration with a Pyrrhic victory."

Superintendent Arthur Jefferson said that if the district is unable to obtain concessions from teachers it may have to "make dramatic cuts in longtime academic staples like art, music, drama, and physical education."

A retired federal mediator, David Tanzman, will act as the fact-finder in the Detroit case. Mr. Tanzman is to make a ruling within 30 days, but may extend the period if he finds it necessary. He estimated the hearing process could take as long as 60 days.

Citizen Involvement

The Detroit school agreement came only after an ad hoc group of influential citizens stepped into the negotiations.

A coalition of local religious, political, and labor leaders urged the two sides to accept binding arbitration and threatened to sue the school district in state court if classes did not resume.

The Detroit walkout was the last to end of 23 this fall in Michigan.

Elsewhere, strikes continued to disrupt classes in Pennsylvania and Michigan, but teachers in Deer Park, N.Y., a Long Island district, returned to work after a weeklong strike.

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