L.A. teachers were loud and clear last week in announcing they are direly underpaid and deserve a 21 percent raise that would cost the district at least $400 million a year.

While the teachers say they're worth the money, the truth is that among comparably sized districts in the state, they already rank at the very top in beginning and mid-career pay and No. 2 when it comes to the maximum amount they can earn.

Beginning teachers in L.A. earn $32,558 a year $1,386 more than a starting teacher in San Francisco and $2,895 more than an educator in San Diego. That dominance continues as teachers climb the salary ladder.

Local union officials made their demands at the start of contract negotiations aimed at replacing an agreement that expires June 30. They insist that statewide comparisons don't matter because they're really competing against other districts in L.A. County, where LAUSD ranks only 12th in starting pay among 47 districts. The union contends that the discrepancy causes many teachers to flee to the suburbs as soon as they have some experience under their belts.

No matter what the teachers think they deserve, school officials say it's a moot point. Most funding for schools comes from the state, which compares districts like L.A. to other large districts such as San Francisco, San Diego and Long Beach when allocating money that can be used for teachers' salaries.

"There's a finite amount of money we're talking about," said Joseph Zeronian, interim chief financial officer for the LAUSD. "It's not like there's new revenue sources we can pick out of the air."

In light of those constraints, the district is offering a more modest 6 percent raise and extra money for teachers at schools where student performance increases beyond expectations. That raise would cost the district approximately $160 million, about 60 percent less than the $400 million raise the teachers are seeking.

"I think that when you spend your money, you've got to look at your priorities," said Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles. "When you can't pay teachers to get into the classroom, that's a serious problem."

The mammoth contract demand comes at a time when the overcrowded school district is in extreme crisis. The LAUSD squandered $100 million from the general fund on the failed Belmont Learning Complex, and is now in the midst of seeking sites for as many as 150 new campuses that it plans to develop with non-discretionary funding from bonds and other sources.

Those problems have not inspired confidence in parents, who are increasingly frustrated with poor student test scores and crumbling facilities.

While everyone agrees that teachers should be paid at least a little more, some wonder whether increases should be tied to better student performance something opposed by the union.

"A 21 percent raise is a very large request," said Lawrence Picus, professor at the Rossier School of Education at USC. "The question is: To what extend does the district offer a straight-ahead increase and to what extend do they tie that raise to something else?"

Show me the money

As the largest school district in California, the LAUSD already receives the most money from the state. The district gets $4,282 for each of its 643,385 pupils. San Diego, the second largest district in the state, receives $4,246 per student.

It's up to each district to decide where that money goes, but in L.A. a major chunk is already allocated to teacher salaries, which account for $2.7 billion of the $4.5 billion general fund. That translates to 60 cents out of every dollar.

The state does plan to give the LAUSD roughly another $140 million to cover a cost-of-living increase, but school officials say that won't begin to cover what teachers are demanding, even if all of it was poured into salaries.

"It's a bit quixotic," school board member David Tokofsky said about the union demands.

Union officials insist the money could be found in a combination of three sources:

>The $200 million included in the school budget that is unspent every year and carried over into the budget or placed in reserves;

>The anticipated $2.6 billion state budget surplus, which teachers believe could become a source of greater funding for the LAUSD if enough lobbying were done in Sacramento;

>Fat-trimming efforts promised by interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines that could add up to as much as $40 million.

The union insists that the district owes teachers such a concerted effort to increase salaries. During an LAUSD budget crisis in the early '90s, the union agreed to a 10 percent pay cut. Some of those cuts were eventually restored, but Higuchi said that when the cuts are taken into account, the union is only looking for a 10 percent raise, which is necessary to compete with other districts in the county.

In addition, L.A. district salaries start at $32,558, which puts it 12th among districts in L.A. County in that category. In contrast, teachers in Arcadia, the top-ranking district in L.A. County in starting pay, start at $34,753 a year.

"For LAUSD to compete with those other schools, we have to offer more money," said Higuchi.

Limited resources

But that's not how it works. LAUSD receives 54 percent of its budget from state and local property taxes, which are considered unrestricted funds. The rest of the money, from federal and state sources, is earmarked for specific uses, such as money derived from Proposition BB for construction of school facilities.

With so much of the discretionary money already going to salaries, there's little wiggle room. And school officials say any extra revenue that might come in next year from budget surpluses or fat trimming would be a one-time source and therefore not a reliable long-term well to draw upon for teachers' salary growth.

"We can squeeze as much as we want from revenue sources but only for one-time expenditures, which this is not," said Zeronian.

The issue, of course, is how the district prioritizes spending. And at this point, the priorities are literacy and facilities over increased pay for teachers, Zeronian said.

In reality, getting such a big raise may not be the most important point for teachers. Somewhere between what they want and what the school district is offering may be a reasonable compromise. Some say it's likely that the union is simply trying to begin negotiations from a strong bargaining point, though Higuchi insists teachers are just asking for what they deserve, regardless of what the district has put forward.

"I think this gets to the heart of the teachers' emotional frustration of continually being told they're important but not seeing that in their paychecks," said Tokofsky.

Higuchi acknowledges that the union demands are aimed at establishing a strong bargaining position that includes the possibility of a strike. But he's hopeful things can be worked out at the bargaining table.

"It's still pretty early in the game," he said.

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