South Pasadena teachers staged a 1-day walk-out Wednesday for higher wages and a binding arbitration clause on disciplinary and policy matters.
It was the first strike in the history of the century-old district, said representatives of the Teachers Assn. of South Pasadena, whose members have been without a contract for more than a year.
The five schools in the South Pasadena Unified School District remained open all day, though there were many absences among the district's 3,500 students. The district reported a 72% student attendance rate throughout the district on Wednesday, with attendance at the high school of only 62%. Of 141 classroom teachers, only 19 reported for work.
Classrooms were staffed by 115 substitutes, who were being paid an average of $175 a day by the district.
All but a handful of the district's 158 regular teachers supported the strike. Claiming that their salaries rank near the bottom of pay scales in 43 school districts in the county, striking teachers picketed the city's five schools, rallied in Garfield Park and huddled with sympathetic parents and students.
"The Board of Education has been arrogant and unwilling to listen," said Jeff Cox, a South Pasadena High School civics teacher. "They're just giving lip service to the community."
Board members contend that there is insufficient slack in the district's $11.4-million budget to cover the 11% wage increase demanded by the union, and that the call for binding arbitration threatens the district's "independence."
"It's really a philosophical question," board member Ellen Hervey told an emotional group of about 200 parents at a meeting Tuesday night, talking about the arbitration issue. "Do the elected representatives of the people of South Pasadena make the final decision, or do they shirk that responsibility, having an outside person make the decision, which is unappealable?"
The union contends that a binding arbitration clause is the only way to make a contract legitimate. Currently, a teacher's last appeal on such matters as performance evaluations or requests for sabbaticals is the board itself. "The board is not a neutral party," Cox said. "It represents management."
Two of five board members, Margaret Ann Abdalla and Joan Sturkie, favor a binding arbitration clause. But the 3-member majority of Susan LaCombe, Yvonne Pine and Hervey were willing only to offer an "advisory arbitration" clause, with an independent arbitrator offering a non-binding opinion.
There has been some movement on the salary issue in the past week. When the latest round of negotiations began last month, the union demanded a 15% raise and the board offered 4%. By last Thursday, the union had reduced its demand to 11%, and the board had raised its offer to 6%.
But the board contends that the average annual salary for a South Pasadena teacher, $33,797 last year, is more than $600 above the state average. It is also below the county average by about the same amount.
The South Pasadena starting salary for a teacher with no experience is $21,921, at the median level for the county's 43 school districts, the board adds.
But the district ranks 41st out of 43 when it comes to salaries for experienced teachers, the category into which most South Pasadena teachers fit, striking teachers said. "The majority of our teachers have been here for more than 15 years," said Cox. "We've shown our commitment."
A survey by the county Office of Education shows that South Pasadena indeed ranked near the bottom in salaries last year for teachers with the maximum amount of experience and education. Only La Canada and Compton rank below South Pasadena, which pays a top rate of $37,606. "La Canada has since settled for a 10.7% pay raise, which puts us just above Compton," said union President Jim Macomber.
Efforts by the board and School Supt. Lou Joseph have reportedly produced $161,000 in possible budget cuts that could be reallocated for higher salaries. The board estimates that it will require $65,000 in additional revenue for each 1% salary increase.
But the teachers contend there is enough slack in the budget to accommodate their 11% demand. "We can point out where there's money available in the budget," Cox said.
Among the items the teachers have zeroed in on are travel expenses for board members to attend conferences and a proposed 50% increase in various school supplies.
The job action has apparently generated widespread sympathy from parents and students. Parents at Tuesday's meeting demanded that Hervey "reconsider" her position on arbitration. As teachers milled in front of the high school Wednesday, students gave them doughnuts and coffee.
"The school board is showing lack of respect for the teachers," said high school senior Marc Gordonson, one of a number of students who did not attend classes in support of the teachers.
"What happens when our good teachers quit because of this?" said Jill McCauley, another senior.