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Urban Schools in Fiscal Trouble, Say Local A.F.T. Union Leaders

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Washington--The nation's urban school districts are in far worse financial condition today as a result of the Reagan Administration's policies than they were five years ago, leaders of local teachers' unions claimed in a recent opinion survey.

And of the 35 union officials responding to the survey, which was conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (aft), more than half said they expect the fiscal situation in their school districts to deteriorate even further in another five years.

Nearly 59 percent of the districts surveyed were reported by their local aft leaders to be in worse shape this year than they were five years ago, while 17.6 percent of the districts were described as in "about the same" financial shape as they were five years ago.

Eight school districts were considered by their local union leaders to be in better financial condition than they were five years ago, according to the survey.

The 35 districts included in the survey represent a total of 4.2 million students based on 1981-82 enrollment figures, slightly more than 10 percent of the nation's public-school students.

In releasing the survey's results, Albert Shanker, aft president, said many of the nation's major cities have had to cope with critical budget problems during the last decade. "Near-defaults and fiscal crises have led to severe cutbacks in municipal services in some cities, serious financial and political dislocations in many others, and outside intervention into the financial affairs of a few big cities," he said.

The policies of the Reagan Administration, according to Mr. Shanker, including cuts in federal domestic spending, have exacerbated the situation.

Mr. Shanker's perceptions of the condition of education in the cities were supported by an overwhelming majority of the union leaders responding to the survey. Eighty-five percent of the local aft affiliates said their districts were unable to compensate for reductions in federal funds.

Reducing Expenses

Union officials cited employee layoffs and the elimination of programs as the most common measures used to reduce district expenses, according to the survey.

The survey found that in the 1981-82 school year more teachers were laid off than in the current school year. This year, an increasing number of districts were able to negotiate salary concessions and thus avert layoffs, according to James G. Ward, the aft's director of research.

In 1981, 63 percent of the districts laid off employees and 91 percent provided salary increases. This year, according to the survey, layoffs occurred in 51 percent of the districts surveyed, while in 74 percent of the districts teachers received wage increases.

The survey found that 57 percent of the districts cut programs during the 1981-82 school year, while 43 percent were forced to do so in this school year.

Losses in Federal Aid

The program areas most affected by losses in federal aid were desegregation, school security, compensatory education, and early-childhood education, the union officials reported.

"The federal education cuts fell disproportionately on city school districts because these cities have disproportionate shares of special-needs children--the disadvantaged, the handicapped, and the limited-English-speaking," Mr. Ward explained.

Mr. Ward said that despite the predictions of an economic recovery, ''it looks as though in the urban-school districts it's going to be very bad for the near future."

On the other hand, he added, the survey shows that there is "a great willingness--on the part of the local union presidents--to work with the community to help solve the economic problems of the school districts."

About 80 percent of the union officials considered "building working relationships" with local elected officials to be an important objective, according to the survey.

Collective Bargaining

In collective bargaining, according to Mr. Ward, "one side views the other as the enemy and I don't think there's anything new in that; it has been an adversarial process." The survey results show, however, that the unions are realizing that they "have to go beyond" that in the relationship, he said.

"In fact," Mr. Ward added, "the union leaders are saying, 'if you don't [move beyond the adversarial position] there's no sense in bargaining'."

Commenting on the survey's result, Dena G. Stoner, director of legislative liaison for the National School Boards Association, said that there is a general consensus among school boards and administrators that urban school districts are in grave financial trouble.

"The fact that they're laying off teachers is evidence of the severity of the problem," Ms. Stoner said. "The last step school boards will take [in solving budget problems] is laying off teachers."

The trend toward greater cooperation between teachers' unions and school boards will be "helpful" in creating a better climate for solving the fiscal, social, and educational problems of urban schools, according to Ms. Stoner. "We can't afford sharp divisions if we are going to help kids," she said.

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