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Anton, Union Official Go to War Over L.A. Budget

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A proposal by the United Teachers of Los Angeles for restructuring the financially troubled school district has provoked a war of words between Superintendent William R. Anton and Helen Bernstein, the president of the union.

Faced with the prospect of a 14 percent pay cut for teachers, on top of a 3 percent cut last year, the teachers' union this summer released a plan for creating what it calls a "no-frills, bare-bones operation that focuses its checkbook and personnel at the individual campuses.''

But Mr. Anton charged in a Sept. 2 "open letter'' that the union's proposals were a "divisive strategy'' that would harm students and could ultimately undermine the district's viability.

The union's "rhetoric that the budget is balanced on the backs of teachers rings hollow,'' he wrote, noting that every employee in the district faces a salary cut, with the highest paid facing the biggest reductions.

"What I see is not a child-centered strategy,'' he continued, "but a list of suggestions which are aimed at keeping teachers' salary levels intact at the expense of students and nonteaching employees.''

The teachers' union and the administration have long disagreed over how the district's money should be spent. But the tensions, which contributed to a strike in 1989, have taken on new urgency with the threat of a massive round of budget cuts.

'Unprecedented' Cuts

The board of education has voted to cut $400 million from its budget this year, $247 million of which must be negotiated with employee groups. Salaries and benefits make up 87 percent of the district's $3.9 billion budget, according to the superintendent.

In an attempt to avert a threatened teachers' strike, an education coalition that has been working on a blueprint for reforming the district last month appointed an independent commission to examine the system's financial condition.

The commission, named by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN, is expected to issue a report this week.

It is chaired by John Van de Kamp, a former California attorney general, and has received the official support of the board of education, the superintendent, and all of the district's bargaining units, according to LEARN.

Mike Roos, the president and chief executive officer of LEARN, has warned that the "unprecedented'' budget cuts threaten to undermine the coalition's work on school reform. (See Education Week, May 27, 1992.)

"The negative impact of this crisis is incalculable,'' Mr. Roos said when the commission was announced. "This community has begun to reach agreement on a revolutionary education-reform agenda, but this vision may never be realized if we cannot get beyond this budget stalemate.''

Restructuring Plan

In its restructuring plan, released in June, the U.T.L.A. proposed a dramatic reduction in administrative positions, a hiring freeze, the suspension of all programs "not essential to the basic curriculum,'' and paying no employee more than the top teacher salary of $51,490 this year.

The plan includes a lengthy list of cost savings and suggested tax increases, including such measures as having the Los Angeles police department provide school security.

It also recommends that the separate Los Angeles County office of education pay for $163 million in "underfunded'' special-education costs, which are now paid out of the district's general-fund budget.

Mr. Anton called the special-education proposal "the most blatant display of U.T.L.A.'s disregard for students' needs.'' The only way to save money, he contended, would be to reduce services to students.

He also maintained that children deserve a "comprehensive program'' including safe transportation, meals, clean schools, and sports and other extracurricular activities.

The argument that a "different scheme for allocating internal resources'' could take care of the budget problems works against efforts to solve the "chronic underfunding'' of public education, he asserted.

But the superintendent's appeal for unity in the face of the budget crisis provoked a strongly negative response from Ms. Bernstein.

"Poor Bill--he just doesn't get it,'' the union president wrote in an open letter of her own.

She called the superintendent's message an "insult'' to the entire bargaining unit and charged that it was "designed to divide L.A.U.S.D. employees and create suspicion and cannibalizing among the L.A.U.S.D. unions.''

Ms. Bernstein also accused the superintendent of making "phantom administrative cuts'' and "wringing your hands'' instead of fighting for sufficient funding.

"It's business as usual for you, Bill, but watch out,'' she wrote. "We're very serious about fighting for our rights and those of our students.''

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