Blaring car horns could be heard throughout the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices Tuesday evening.
Drivers honked in support of the nearly 100 teachers, who stood on the corner of Baker and Bear streets in Costa Mesa to protest what the teachers' union called "unfair bargaining practices."
The district began negotiating the 2014-15 contract with the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers in February.
The contract expires June 30, said union Executive Director Nicholas Dix.
The union is taking issue with Supt. Fred Navarro's district newsletter, "Dot," which is sent to all district employees.
Navarro recently wrote about some of the items being negotiated in the contract, including proposed changes to employee health benefits and a possible pay increase, Dix said.
While the union isn't necessarily unhappy with the items up for negotiation, the fact that Navarro is attempting to negotiate in public makes teachers uncomfortable, Dix said.
"It's not about the items on the table for discussion," Dix said. "It's about respect at the table."
Officials said the district has negotiated fairly with the union.
Administrators were simply trying to get information into the hands of the district's employees so they could make an informed decision, said John Caldecott, executive director of human resources.
However, communicating with teachers directly regarding negotiations is unprecedented and interferes with the union's ability to negotiate with the district, Dix said.
"It creates confusion for our members," he said. "[Navarro] is attempting to communicate with employees instead of at the bargaining table. It's just muddying the waters.
In s statement, Navarro said, "Based upon free speech rights and the First Amendment, labor law has a longstanding precedent that either side has the right to go public on proposals once they have been presented at the bargaining table. What is not allowed is to communicate to rank and file about a proposal that has not been presented in negotiations to the union bargaining team.
"I am commited to sharing the facts of proposals once they have been presented at the bargaining table and I will continue to provide information that is relevant to the NMUSD school community. My goal has and continues to be to maintain open and honest communication in an 'information sharing' manner so that all N-MUSD stakeholders can make informed decisions, with all of the facts."
In response, teachers took to the streets, holding signs proclaiming their need for a fair contract that includes a raise and maintains health benefits. Employees are hoping the district will maintain their current health coverage and help offset rising healthcare costs in addition to giving a cost-of-living increase.
"This is a pattern. When the district goes through hard times, we're patient, and we play along," said Margaret Anderson, a fourth-grade teacher at Whittier Elementary School. "When things get better it seems like we always have to fight to restore what was lost. It's disheartening."
Employee healthcare costs the district $39 million annually, Caldecott said.
The economic downturn several years ago forced many school districts to hand down pay cuts to teachers and institute furlough days – something Newport-Mesa avoided, Caldecott said.
He asked that teachers remain patient, but said that rising healthcare costs are inevitable and that employees would have to pay more under their current plan.
Still, Alex Gladstone, a fourth-grade teacher at Andersen Elementary School, said teachers who were patient with the district when money was tight deserve a pay increase now that funding has been restored.
It's been about four years since teachers received a boost in pay, she said.
"We feel the district is flush with money now," she said. "We don't want to be treated like servants."