Striking Teachers Gain in Numbers; 6,500 Students Out

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of teachers in the Orange Unified School District, upset over lack of a pay-raise agreement, returned to the picket line Friday for the second straight day with no end to the walkout in sight.

A total of 651 of the district's 1,100 teachers did not report to work Friday, nearly 100 more than had stayed away on Thursday, district officials said. While no classes were canceled, officials said 6,498 of the district's 24,500 students stayed home.

The strike was called Thursday morning, a few hours after negotiations between union and school board officials broke down. Negotiations have lasted for 15 months.

"I think it's an interesting comment on the frustration level--not to plan a strike and within four hours generate one like we did yesterday (Thursday)," said Cliff Cole, a counselor at El Modena High School. Cole was one of about 60 teachers walking the picket line Friday at El Modena.

Deena Hoffman, who teaches English at El Modena, also expressed her frustration that no settlement was reached at Thursday night's school board meeting.

"They just had this hard-line attitude and no one was going to move them," Hoffman said. "I just wish they'd stop the game-playing and get down to business. Everybody out here wants to be in there teaching."

But district spokeswoman Josie Cabiglio said: "Our board is not willing to go back to the bargaining table without a state mediator during a strike situation."

A mediator was contacted late Friday, but no date for a meeting has been set, Cabiglio said, adding, "We're hoping early next week."

The district, second largest in the county behind Santa Ana's, includes the cities of Orange and Villa Park and parts of Anaheim.

Teachers are demanding a 3.5% raise for this school year and a 6.3% raise for next year. In addition, teachers want a guarantee that the district will continue to pay all health and welfare benefits costs.

District officials have offered a 2.54% raise for the current year and a 3.76% raise for next year. The district has agreed to pay benefit costs for the current year but only up to $3,622 per teacher next year.

According to district administrators, Orange Unified teachers average $33,307 a year, with salaries ranging from $21,686 to $40,628.

Mark Rona, president of the Orange Unified Educators Assn., addressed teachers at a rally in front of the school district office Friday morning and said the union was still willing to talk.

"We're trying to get back to the table," he said. "When things fell apart the other morning we did everything but tie (school board members) to their chairs to keep them there."

While Rona warned that teachers were "ticked off," he said they will meet Monday morning in Hart Park to decide if they will continue the strike.

Rona, like many teachers, expressed frustration with district Supt. John Ikerd. "He has not exhibited any degree of leadership up to this point," Rona said. "We're really disappointed in him."

In response, Ikerd said: "We are disappointed that (the strike) happened. We both want to solve it. I think we're both interested in working with a mediator."

Ikerd said he was not sure what the district would do if the strike continues. "I don't know the answer to that one. But we're working to ensure we have adequate coverage" of all classes, he said.

Cabiglio said the district would have no trouble finding substitute teachers if the strike continues. "A lot of substitute teachers are more than willing to come in for $175 a day," she said.

But some students complained Friday that parents, not substitute teachers, were being called in to "baby-sit" classes. Cabiglio said parents as well as substitute teachers and administrators were used to cover classes Friday.

"I agree that that is not an ideal situation," she said, "but what are we to do if we need people to watch the students? Would (the parents) rather that their children be unattended? We can't do that. Students are our No. 1 priority."

Many of the students interviewed Friday supported their teachers' demands.

"I think teachers need what they're asking for," said Nancy Phelps, an 18-year-old senior at El Modena High School. "I don't want to lose the good teachers we have here because of the board's indecision. . . . I really resent it that they're not going back to the table to discuss this."

Phelps' mother, Donna Phelps, said she also supported the teachers. "This is really unfair to our kids and our teachers. I really feel (teachers) need to be respected because they're teaching our future citizens. Why should they be out here using their feet instead of their brains? That really bugs me."

Some students were worried about how the strike will affect their graduation.

"We're supposed to graduate and none of our teachers are in class," said Jean Hetzel, a 17-year-old senior at El Modena High. "We had term papers due yesterday. And the teacher said not to give it to the substitute. I just brought it today to make sure I hand it in and get credit for it."

"If the students come to school, yes, they will graduate," Cabiglio said. "We will do everything in our power not to jeopardize the advancement or the graduation of our students."

Some of the striking teachers at El Modena said they were upset that a few teachers chose to keep working. "I'm uncomfortable with it," Cliff Cole said. "I think if we're all going to get the benefits, we all should be out here."

Nick Buford, 46, a striking counselor at the school, said he just wants to see a settlement.

"We're the front-line people who work with kids, not a board that sits up there and meets twice a month," Buford said. "Last night we asked (the board) to please come back to the bargaining table. They flatly refused. That's why we're here today.

"The last thing we want to do is put the kids in the middle. So let's settle it and settle it now. We all want to get back on the other side of the fence. That's where we belong."

ORANGE UNIFIED STRIKE AT A GLANCE

Salary Increase This Year Teachers' demand: 3.5%.

District offer: 2.54%.

Salary Increase Next Year Teachers' demand: 6.3%.

District offer: 3.76%.

Health and Welfare Benefits Teachers want a guarantee that the district will continue to pay all benefits costs. District has agreed to pay all costs this year but has offered to pay only up to $3,622 per teacher next year.

Negotiations Talks between the parties have been going on for 15 months but broke down early Thursday and a strike was called. A state mediator has been called in but no date has been set for a meeting between union and school district officials.

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