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An L.A. Columnist's Salvo Launches a War of Words Over Teacher Salaries

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A Conversation with Debra Saunders

Debra J. Saunders, an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, last summer inflamed the local teachers' union with a column explaining how the Los Angeles Unified School District spent its $169-per-pupil share of the California state lottery.

While other districts had spent 59 percent to 65 percent of their proceeds on salaries and benefits, she wrote, Los Angeles used all but about 3 percent, or $5.05 per student, on salaries, which had been hiked substantially following a rancorous strike.

After the column ran, Ms. Saunders became the target of what she characterizes as harassment.

Staff writer Karen Diegmueller talked with the columnist shortly before the union and the district embarked on a new round of contract negotiations.

Q. You wrote a column that angered United Teachers-Los Angeles. What happened?

A. United Teachers sent out my home phone number to its members and urged them to call me at home. It also said that it had my home address and basically threatened to print that as well.

I had to change my phone number. I got a couple of basically obscene harassing calls. One woman said she would beat me up if she had my home address. A teacher was speaking this way! I felt that these people sounded like thugs. I think the whole intention of this was to harass me.

Q. What had you written to set this in motion?

A. I believe what upset them was the fact that I started publicizing teachers' salaries, and people had not been aware of what teachers' salaries are in Los Angeles. Teachers start at $29,500; their average salary is $45,880. The highest-paid teacher makes over $92,000. I think that when people started finding out about the salaries, they got very upset.

Q. Why are you critical of the increases the teachers won in their last contract?

A. Los Angeles teachers seem to be under the belief that there is so much administrative fat in the budget that their raises can be funded by getting rid of [it], and indeed, there is much to be found. The reality is that their raises really cut into other things. There are year-round schools in Los Angeles that don't have air conditioning. That is obscene. Kids don't get new books. There is a real shortage in that area. Field trips are down.

The problem with paying teachers more than a district can afford is that it really hurts the kids, and I don't feel that the unions care enough about the kids.

[Utla recently] boasted about how the union was nearing a successful negotiation to get teachers four more days of preparation time. Right now, they [get] two days' preparation, 180 days teaching kids. It's not going to help the kids to reduce that number to 176 days. So many times what they negotiate for isn't in the best interest of the kids or to improve their education. It's to make life easier for teachers.

Q. What other consequences have the teachers' raises had?

A. After [the district] gave these three 8 percent annual increases to teachers, it turned around and gave 8 percent increases for two years to administrators. Now the [teaching assistants] have a rolling strike going. ... The school board tried to raise its [members'] salaries from $24,000 to $68,926.

During the strike, the school board ... tried to get money from the legislature. Other districts said, if [Los Angeles] was able to get money out of the state, they should be able to get money ... for their districts as well. It's created a domino effect.

Q. Do you believe that all teachers are overpaid?

A. Absolutely not. This is a big country and ... maybe a majority of them are not.

Q. Some union members have suggested that you harbor ill will toward them because of a lousy teacher in your past.

A. I had great [public-school] teachers when I was a kid. Sure, I had a couple who weren't so great, [and] one or two who were downright terrible, but I had a lot of good teachers.

Q. You've taken the union to task on other issues as well. Do you think the union should be abolished?

A. I personally don't believe in unions for professional people. One often hears teachers complain that they feel they're not treated like professionals, but let's face it, the whole union compensation method isn't paying people like professionals. It's paying them like assembly-line workers. On the other hand, I believe people have the right to have a union if they want one.

Q. What is the best thing that teachers could do to improve the schools?

A. Instead of going for raises this year ... [they could] demand that the district give kids certain things. One of them [might be] air conditioning. Another one would be more books. If the union would do that, that would be the best thing possible for kids, a selfless bargaining year.

Q. Has this conflict accomplished anything?

A. I've gotten people in the city to start paying more attention and not to just automatically assume that teachers are underpaid as they once were. The result will be if they start making exorbitant demands this time around, people are just going to laugh at them.

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