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Negotiations Aim To Head Off Los Angeles Teacher Strike

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Negotiators for the Los Angeles public schools and the teachers' union continued to meet late last week to try to hammer out a pay agreement as a teachers' strike scheduled for Feb. 23 approached.

Spokeswomen for the United Teachers-Los Angeles and the school district said they were hopeful that the sessions mediated by Willie Lewis Brown Jr., the Speaker of the California House, would bring the protracted contract dispute to an end.

Also expected at the bargaining table were Sid Thompson, the superintendent of schools; Leticia Quezada, the school board president; Helen Bernstein, the U.T.L.A. president; and three other union officials.

"Our members are very hopeful that something will come out of these negotiations,'' said Catherine Carey, the communications director for the U.T.L.A., late in the day on Feb. 18. "Striking is the last thing our people want to do.''

Diana Munatones, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said late last Thursday that school officials "are cooperating and working as hard as we can to avert a strike.''

Brown Encouraged

Mr. Brown, who was asked last month by both parties to mediate the dispute, told members of the press early last week that he was encouraged by the progress being made in negotiating sessions.

However, both the union and the district were prepared for the possibility of a walkout, which would be the second in four years for the nation's second-largest school district.

"Since this is not new to the district,'' said Ms. Munatones, "we're prepared to keep our schools open, to continue our cafeteria service, to continue to provide bus transportation, and to keep our child-care programs open.''

"We'll do everything we can to provide a safe environment for everyone working in the schools and the students attending,'' she added.

'Informational' Pickets

In response to advertisements that the district ran recently in local newspapers to attract substitute teachers in the event of a strike, the U.T.L.A. placed "informational picketers'' outside district offices last week.

"We had picketers at the L.A.U.S.D. headquarters,'' explained Ms. Carey, "to hand out letters to people asking them not to do this. We're just saying, 'Hey, this is not the way to get into the profession.' ''

District officials said nearly 150 people applied to substitute teach if the union went ahead with a strike. Although the district advertised for "credentialed'' teachers only, some parents also have called offering to help out in classrooms, said the L.A.U.S.D. spokeswoman.

Since most of the district's administrators have teaching experience, they could be assigned to teaching duties as well, added Ms. Munatones.

About 78 percent of the union's 34,000 members voted last fall to walk off the job if the school board did not rescind a 9 percent pay cut it imposed to help close the district's $400 million budget gap.

The cut, which took effect in December, followed a 3 percent reduction in teachers' salaries the previous year, which the school board says it cannot repay.

Breakup Proposed

Some observers say the 645,000-student district is too big to be run efficiently and therefore must be broken up. Last week, David Roberti, the President pro tem of the state senate, was expected to introduce legislation that would divide the district into at least seven school systems. (See Education Week, Feb. 17, 1993.)

Both the district and the teachers' union--as well as members of the city's Hispanic and African-American communities--have criticized the proposal, claiming that it would exacerbate economic segregation or simply spread inefficiency to new school administrations.

Ms. Carey said settling the contract dispute could be the only means of avoiding the proposed breakup. "A strike would just add fuel to their fire,'' she said.

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