Retirement Roulette

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Schwarzenegger hands in first petitions

Presenting an education agenda that has shrunk substantially since January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday enlisted young schoolchildren tugging little red wagons to turn in signatures for an initiative that makes it harder for teachers to get tenure.

Appearing at the Sacramento County registrar of voters office in a sport-utility vehicle loaded with petitions, Schwarzenegger took a step toward calling the special election he's threatened since the start of the year.

He has until June 13 to call the election. Wednesday marked the first day petitions for his initiatives were submitted to county registrars for validation.

The rest of the 350,000 signatures for the tenure proposal will be submitted in other California counties today and Friday, aides said.

They said signatures on Schwarzenegger's proposals for legislative redistricting and spending controls also will be turned in over the next several days. Once signatures are validated by county registrars, the initiatives go on the next scheduled election ballot.

"If the legislators don't do their job, the people of California will," Schwarzenegger said. "This is why this initiative process is so important."

The proposal he advanced Wednesday, however, is a scaled-down version of an earlier measure he backed making it harder for public school teachers to get tenure. He has also given up his earlier vow to ask voters to implement a merit pay system for teachers.

As he lined up the schoolchildren to help cart in boxes of the first 26,000 signatures for the tenure proposal, several dozen union protesters were off to the side shouting angrily at the Republican governor. "Hey, hey, ho, ho," they chanted at one point, "Schwarzenegger's got to go."

Some of the children, who Schwarzenegger aides said came from public schools in the area, giggled at the commotion. Others looked frightened to be caught in the middle of all the shouting.

"It's not real reform," Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, said afterward. "Real reform is reduced class size, having the best textbooks and materials, good quality teacher in-service training. This is basically a smokescreen to make sure we don't pay attention to his broken promises to education."

School principals now have about 18 months to determine whether teachers are tenured. Once teachers achieve that status, it becomes much more difficult to remove them. Under Schwarzenegger's proposal, they couldn't be tenured until five years on the job - cut down from the 10 he originally proposed.

When he outlined his various government overhaul measures earlier in the year, Schwarzenegger's centerpiece education idea was merit pay. But aides have said tenure changes are easier to communicate to voters and that the governor doesn't plan to pursue a merit pay measure for a special election ballot. He now intends to include some type of bonus pay for high-achieving teachers in a revised budget proposal he will release next week.

"Tenure is a very important beginning because our children deserve better," Schwarzenegger said after he personally plopped down a box of petitions at the registrar's office. "There's no industry or no other state in the country that has tenure after two years.

"If you're a lousy teacher, no one can get rid of you. If you're the worst teacher, no one could get rid of you. So what tenure reform would do is weed out (bad teachers) and reward the good teachers."

Kerr said teachers who don't perform can always be fired. Schwarzenegger's proposal, she said, would allow them to be fired without due process hearings.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, criticized the governor for going forward with his initiative while negotiations over the issue are taking place at the staff level between Schwarzenegger's administration and legislative Democrats.

"The only thing the governor is moving forward are initiatives that are politically divisive," Núñez said. "I'm disappointed that the governor is not going to wait to submit his signatures and give an opportunity for the negotiation process to find its way to some resolution on all the matters that are before us."

As he has done in the past, Schwarzenegger continued to say he prefers a legislative solution to the government reform measures he has advanced. But he didn't sound optimistic about that prospect as the deadline for agreement approaches.

"The speaker and all of the people that are complaining about our reforms are the ones that have created the problem in the first place," Schwarzenegger said. "This is why we had the recall election.

"Our doors are open and we have now finally started negotiating. Yesterday was the first time where we had some written proposals that were sent down to our office and they started talking. I'm sorry to say that it's four months late, but again, we are open to dialogue."

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