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State Mediator to Join Negotiations Tuesday in Teachers’ Strike

Times Staff Writer

Negotiations between striking teachers and officials in the Orange Unified School District will resume Tuesday, when a state mediator will join the talks, officials on both sides of the dispute said Saturday.

Russell Barrios, president of the Orange Unified school board, said trustees learned of the mediator’s involvement early Saturday during an emergency closed-door briefing at district headquarters. The board has said it will not meet with teachers unless a mediator is present.

Teachers struck the 24,500-student district Thursday morning after talks broke down. More than half the district’s 1,100 teachers obeyed picket lines Friday.

Trustees were briefed Saturday by district Supt. John Ikerd, who informed the board about preparations for classes Monday.

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In a statement issued late Saturday, Barrios identified the mediator as Draza Mrvichin, a senior member of the California State Conciliation Service who was “instrumental” in the settlement of strikes in Los Angeles, Moreno Valley and Lynwood.

“It is our hope Mr. Mrvichin can find a solution” to the dispute, which Monday will affect a third day of classes, Barrios said.

The district said it would meet informally today with teachers but that formal sessions with the mediator will not begin until Tuesday.

Little Optimism Expressed

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Union leaders vowed Saturday to continue their walkout indefinitely and expressed little optimism that the state mediator can end the 15-month-old labor dispute. Orange Unified, serving four cities, is the county’s second largest school district.

“What good is a mediator if the board is not willing to change its position?” asked Mark Rona, president of the Orange Unified Educators Assn., the teachers’ union. Predicting growing support for the strike, Rona said 85% of the teachers at the district’s 37 schools will not report to work Monday. The union has scheduled a meeting for teachers Monday morning at W.O. Hart Park to outline strike plans, he said.

Should teachers stay out, Barrios said, the district has enough administrators and substitutes--at $175 a day--lined up to staff classes.

“There are many non-striking teachers still in the classrooms, and they are giving out homework, tests and trying to run an educational program,” said Ikerd, according to the district’s Saturday night statement. “Students who are not in attendance risk their grades in those classes. While we hope our mediator can find a path to settlement, we must prepare for a long strike.”

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With schools closed Saturday, about 75 teachers picketed the homes of four trustees, including that of Barrios.

Barrios said he returned home from the district offices at mid-morning to find about a dozen sign-carrying teachers, some of them holding American flags, in front of his Maple Street home. The two-term trustee said the strike has been the “most difficult” episode in his 4 1/2 years on the board. He said he was upset that his family had “become a target” as a result.

After an hour, Barrios emerged from his house and invited the teachers to sit on his front porch and discuss their grievances.

Teachers want a pay increase of 3.5% for this school year and a raise of 6.3% for next year. In addition, teachers want a guarantee that the district will continue to pay all health and welfare benefits. District officials have offered a two-year wage package with a raise of 2.54% for the current year and a raise of 3.76% for next year. The teachers have been working without a contract since July.

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In a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell sketch, Barrios, in short sleeves and casual pants, sat on the porch railing and listened to the teachers’ complaints. Across the street in the older neighborhood, a wedding had just ended and the celebrants were spilling out of a church.

But Barrios and the teachers paid little attention.

Like accountants, they discussed various funding formulas and scenarios. In the end, Barrios told the teachers that a settlement could only be reached if the teachers’ union “budged on the money question.”

In an interview later, Barrios said he has “mixed emotions” about the strike. He said he believes the teachers have a right to express their displeasure. but he said the strike, one of the few in the 35-year history of the district, has taken a financial toll on the district.

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Like all California public schools, much of the Orange district’s income is based on student attendance. When a student is absent, the district loses money.

About 6,500 students missed school on Friday.

Parents Concerned

Barrios recalled that as he prepared for work on Friday it took nearly 1 1/2 hours to brush his teeth because “my phone never stopped ringing.” Most of the calls, he said, were from parents concerned that classes would not be adequately staffed or supervised or that high school students, particularly seniors at the district’s four high schools, might lose graduation credits.

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As long they attend class, Barrios said, students will receive full credit. The board president said many of the students who failed to show up Friday simply took advantage of the confusion over the strike to skip classes. “We don’t believe it was a show of sympathy or support for the teachers,” he said.

Rona, disagreeing, said union officials would try to gain even more public support by translating leaflets outlining their position into Spanish and Vietnamese for the district’s sizeable immigrant population.

District officials have complained that outside union activists are leading the strike, but although Rona acknowledged that organizers with the Sacramento-based California Teachers Assn. are helping coordinate strike efforts and assisting at the bargaining table, he denied that the teachers went on strike reluctantly.

“The teachers in this district have never been so unified or so angry,” said Rona, a teacher in the district for 18 years. “The board has only themselves to blame for all of this.”

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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%.

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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 will meet with both sides Tuesday.


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