Officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles have reached a conditional agreement on several budget-related items, including a plan to keep the existing classes sizes in elementary schools in place.

The agreement, announced March 27th, will save approximately 2,000 teacher, counselor and librarian positions, officials said. In addition, the teachers union agreed to five furlough days this year and seven in 2011, with two new paid professional development days added next year.

The school district would reap approximately $140 million in savings with the furlough days, according to LAUSD officials. The district has been trying to reduce its current $640 million shortfall, including altering the practice of allowing students within LAUSD boundaries to transfer to other schools — a move that has generated a great deal of controversy.

LAUSD would get an additional $51 million by changing its inter-district transfer policy.

LAUSD Board President Monica García credited UTLA for agreeing to the furlough days.

“The leadership of our unions has stepped up in these difficult times to be partners in service to our students and families,” García said in a statement. “While our employees bear no responsibility for this financial crisis, I am proud of the incredibly important role they will play in helping to mitigate the impact it will have on our schools.”

In exchange for the 12 furlough days, the school district has agreed to maintain current classroom numbers at the existing levels. Class sizes in K-3 were slated to increase from 24 students to 29, but will now remain in place.

“Because teachers and health and human services professionals are at the core of the education program for students, avoiding classroom cuts and layoffs was critical; the fewer the cuts, the better for our students,” said UTLA President A.J. Duffy after the accord was reached. “This agreement would allow us to avoid debilitating class size increases that create an environment where it is extremely difficult for students to learn.”

The tentative deal marks a rare recent agreement between the district and the teachers union, which have battled each other over salary considerations and benefit concessions for years.

The pact does not include proposed pay cuts proffered by LAUSD to teachers and must be approved by UTLA before it takes effect.

Each furlough day taken by all district employees would save $15 million, according to LAUSD officials. Five days without pay in 2009-2010 would take $75 million off the current shortfall.

Duffy also said the savings could be used to hire back additional educators who have been laid off due to the budget crisis.

“We can bring back over 2,100 teachers immediately,” the UTLA president said.

Lydia Ponce, a Venice parent whose daughter is a student at Venice High School, is pleased that the class sizes will remain at its current levels in elementary school, but she does not agree with cutting days from the school calendar.

“No days of instruction should be taken away,” Ponce said. “If anything, students who are not doing as well as others should be given more time to receive tutoring and mentoring.”

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines proposed a change in the number of school days in February when he recommended shortening the academic calendar by six days, which he said would have saved $90 million.

“I am reluctantly proposing that we pursue a reduction of the school instructional year by five days for 2009-10, plus one pupil-free workday, creating the opportunity for furlough days for all personnel in the district,” Cortines said in February in a statement.

Another parent, Gloria Halfacre, whose daughter attends Beethoven Elementary School, is not convinced that class sizes will remain where they are if the agreement between UTLA and LAUSD is finalized.

“Our class sizes have already increased. My daughter has 30 kids in her fourth grade class,” she said. “Our teachers do a great job, but when you have more than 25 kids in a class, it’s unmanageable.”

Westchester High School teacher Fred Page has taught 40 students for the last several years.

“You just do what you can,” Page, who teaches mathematics and business, stated matter-of-factly.

No increases in class size are planned at the high school level, say UTLA officials.

Halfacre, who is a member of a parents booster club at her daughter’s school, the Friends of Beethoven, says children who are in larger classes tend not to learn as well as students in smaller classes.

“There are more discipline problems in a large class,” she said.

Page trusts Duffy and UTLA will do what they feel is right for the teachers.

“If this will help our brothers and sisters who could get hired back or would have to take a pay cut, then I’m all for it,” he said. “If that’s what it takes to save jobs, than I think that’s what we should do.

“I don’t think that our union would advise us to do anything that’s not in our best interests.”

The teachers union will also drop its lawsuit against LAUSD pertaining to a strike that was planned for May 15th.

Duffy was pleased that the teachers are not the only district employees who will be taking furlough days. School board members’ staffs have agreed to accept four unpaid days, and Cortines, his senior staff and other non-union employees will also take days off without pay.

Board member Tamar Galatzan said that in addition to her staff accepting the furlough days, she has taken a ten-percent pay cut from her board salary.

“This makes the situation much more equitable,” said Duffy.

UTLA members will vote on the agreement at their respective school sites beginning Wednesday, April 7th through Friday, April 9th.

A teachers union representative said he was confident that the agreement would pass and support for the deal is “overwhelming.”

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