In a move that could further erode relations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the union has filed an unfair labor practices charge with the California Public Employment Relations Board against the school district.

Union representatives lodged the complaint after a decision by district authorities in June to cancel a long-standing practice of holding professional development sessions for teachers prior to the beginning of a new school year — “buy-back days” for which teachers were paid extra.

“The intention of these professional buy-back days was that teachers could do professional development outside of the instructional year,” explained Jes™s Qui“ones, the attorney representing the teachers union.

Removing this long-held practice has angered the union’s top executives to the point that they are considering taking a drastic step that could lead to widening the growing gulf between the district and the largest organization in L.A. Unified that represents classified and certificated personnel.

“We are now creating our timeline for a possible strike,” teachers union president A.J. Duffy told The Argonaut August 1st. “This is not just about money; this is about having a dialogue between teachers and administrators about professional development and training.”

The filing of the unfair labor charge is the latest in a series of events that both sides have engaged in during what has been a tumultuous year for the nation’s second largest public school district, which is in the throes of confronting a $350 million budget deficit, low test scores at some schools and several teacher protests.

In June, L.A. Unified filed an injunction with the Public Employment Relations Board to prevent educators from using their homeroom hour to stage district-wide protests on June 6th against planned reductions to the state education budget. The board rejected L.A. Unified’s claim and allowed the teachers to proceed with the protest.

“The rescheduling of professional development during the school year will hurt kids by pulling teachers out of classrooms during critical instructional time,” said Duffy. “These misdirected actions show that LAUSD’s priority is still not on student learning.”

Roger Smith, a labor relations specialist with the Public Employment Relations Board, said the state agency had received the union’s complaint.

“Right now we are in the initial screening process, which will take about a month,” Smith said. “LAUSD will have between two and two and a half weeks to respond to the charge.”

Kate Collins, associate general counsel of the school district, acknowledged that the statewide fiscal crisis is forcing all public entities to look for ways to trim costs.

“In these hard economic times, LAUSD is searching for effective and equitable ways to cope with the current budget cuts,” Collins wrote in an e-mail.

Qui“ones agrees. “These are difficult economic times,” he acknowledged. “But that’s when compliance with the law is most important.”

The decision to eliminate the buy-back days was a unilateral one, without any negotiation, said Qui“ones.

Gail Hughes, an assistant L.A. Unified superintendent, informed Duffy on June 18th that the buy-back days were no longer on the table.

“The district does not, at this time, agree with your opinion that elimination of the voluntary buy-back days is negotiable,” Hughes wrote in a letter to Duffy.

Representatives of the district’s teachers rejected Hughes’ claim.

“The law states that before these kinds of changes can be made, you are required to bargain with the other party before you make a decision,” Qui“ones countered.

Fred Page, who teaches mathematics at Westchester High School, says that the removal of these buy-back days will take money away from teachers at a time when they have been unduly harmed by budget cutbacks.

“Losing these days is going to cost me about $1,000,” said Page.

Paul Duke, a Venice resident who teaches physical education at University High School, views this latest development as a thinly disguised cut in pay for educators.

“I definitely see it that way,” said Duke. “Basically, what LAUSD is saying is, when the bell rings on the first day of school, just go right into the classroom without any preparation for the new school year.”

Qui“ones says that although the buy-back days have been rescinded, the school district continues to receive money that subsidizes them.

“LAUSD continues to receive funding from a state block grant,” said the union attorney.

Collins says that the district’s intent is not to have further erosion of morale between its employees and management.

“Labor relations with our employees remain one of our paramount concerns,” Collins wrote. “For this reason, we will evaluate the charge recently filed by UTLA and will be preparing an appropriate response to PERB [Public Employment Relations Board].”

Heather Kahler, a Venice resident of the Oxford Triangle neighborhood, sympathizes with educators who stand to lose money now that the buy-back days have been cancelled.

“I can’t imagine how teachers are coping,” she said. “First they had all that payroll [debacle] where the teachers didn’t get paid correctly or at all for over a year, and this was after LAUSD spent over $90 million to ‘upgrade’ the payroll system, which then cost them several millions to fix.”

Kahler was referring to a year-long situation last year when certificated personnel in L.A. Unified were consistently underpaid or not paid at all. In some cases, teachers were overpaid and then charged for the amount overpaid.

A glitch in the system was the primary culprit in the payroll debacle which forced some teachers to take out loans, and the original contractors that installed the technology, Delotte & Touch, paid over $200 million, was hired to fix the glitch.

“Perhaps this is only one example of the poor choices in spending that got us into this deficit in the first place,” asserted Kahler, whose daughter attends Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School in Venice. “Now LAUSD wants the teachers essentially to pay for the failure of a payroll system that kept them from getting paid at all.”

Duffy reiterated that the union was seriously considering a strike.

“We have tried to deal with [LAUSD] in a humane and professional manner, and all we get is a bunch of nothing,” he said.

Duke said that the days of professional development were also a time where fellow teachers and administrators could collaborate and compare notes on how classroom instruction will be altered or improved.

“For a veteran teacher, it might not be as difficult without the buy-back days, but for a new teacher, this time is invaluable, because it involves how to take attendance, school rules and classroom procedures,” Duke pointed out.

Duffy was also angered by the fact that the school district is pursuing legal action against teachers who participated in the June 6th protests.

“This is after teachers went almost a year without getting paid,” the union president said. “This is why so many charter schools are opening, and this is why teachers are thirsting to go into the iDesign division.”

The iDesign Schools division, formerly known as the Innovation Division, is the department of L.A. Unified that will work with five Westchester schools seeking autonomy to learn about school governance, grant writing, budgets and improving student achievement, among other things.

Duffy lamented the chasm that continues to stand between the district’s teachers and its management team.

“These people are so stupid that they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction and they are oblivious to it,” he said.

LAUSD board member Marlene Canter, who represents the Westside, had not returned phone calls for comment on this story at Argonaut press time.