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Strike Looms as L.A. Teachers Urged To Reject Board Offer

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Members of the United Teachers-Los Angeles are expected to vote this week on whether to accept the school district's latest contract offer or to approve a strike scheduled for Feb. 22.

The U.T.L.A.'s directors have recommended that the membership stage the walkout rather than suffer an additional 9 percent pay cut included in the Los Angeles Unified School District's "last and best offer.''

But union leaders said they are also considering several legal options, including an appeal of the Nov. 25 court decision that allowed the district to retain the cuts in the teachers' contract.

School officials said last week that they thought it was likely the union would choose to strike.

The contract dispute began when the school board voted on Oct. 2 to slash the salaries of about 32,000 teachers and other employees to help close a $400 million budget gap in the nation's second-largest district.

Under the plan, the board proposed adding a 9 percent pay cut to the 3 percent already trimmed from the teachers' salaries last year.

Though the union on Nov. 5 won a temporary restraining order barring the pay cuts, a Los Angeles superior-court judge ruled Nov. 25 that he had no jurisdiction in the dispute, essentially restoring the cuts.

Union officials said the judge was probably influenced by a waiver the district obtained from the state board of education the day before the hearing.

In an emergency meeting, the board agreed to defer several education-code provisions the union claimed the district was violating by making the cuts.

The board's eleventh-hour action dramatized the district's precarious financial condition and the scope of the state's involvement.

District officials "brought the whole political institution into our case,'' said Catherine Carey, the communications director for the U.T.L.A. "The judge was probably frightened off.''

Exploring Legal Routes

The Nov. 25 decision moved the dispute to the Public Employee Relations Board, the state's labor mediators.

While it could take months for that body to consider the case, the U.T.L.A. is asking PERB to issue an order preventing the cuts on the grounds that the school district practiced bad-faith bargaining.

However, both union and district officials have acknowledged that PERB members tend to rule against organized labor.

"They're political appointees of [Gov.] Pete Wilson,'' a Republican, Ms. Carey observed. "They're mostly anti-union.''

Shel Erlich, a spokesman for the district, said: "PERB has substantiated the district's position in the past. I think that's why U.T.L.A. chose to forgo fact-finding by PERB earlier this year.''

According to Ms. Carey, lawyers for the union are exploring the possibility of appealing the superior court's latest decision.

"We are considering all the legal remedies available,'' she added.

Last week, in an apparent attempt to strong-arm the school board, the U.T.L.A. enlisted the support of the state-level unions, the California Teachers' Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

The groups are teaming up to file suit against the state board "for waiving the education code in the middle of our litigation,'' Ms. Carey said.

No New Cuts?

Leticia Quezada, the school board president, said the district is pleased with the latest court action and is now "awaiting the union's response on the last and best offer.''

Though the contract includes the disputed pay cuts, it also contains the district's promise not to make cuts next year if state funding remains at current levels.

Ms. Carey said the pledge amounted to an empty gesture since "all indications from Sacramento show another financial crisis'' on the way.

The union continues to argue that the district could improve its financial condition by cutting programs and initiating a hiring freeze.

"It's not the teachers' salaries that have been the problem,'' Ms. Carey said. "It's the way [school officials] spend that's driving the district into the ground.''

Ms. Quezada said the district is trying to improve its accountability by "conducting a management audit and probing into the state budget for next year.''

But she conceded that the district--and its 645,000 students--could face a crisis if the union decides to strike at the beginning of the spring semester.

"I think it's very likely'' that teachers will decide to walk out, she said. "But that's several months away.''

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