Mounting frustration from working without a contract for nearly nine months spurred more than 150 teachers from the San Dieguito Union High School District to abandon their classrooms Wednesday in what administrators term an unauthorized sickout.
Disgruntled faculty members, who have been seeking both salary increases and substantially improved health and fringe benefits since their contract expired last June, failed to report to work.
The labor action depleted the district’s 350-member teaching staff by about 50% and forced administrators to scramble in search of substitute teachers.
Administrators, who heard rumors about a sickout late Tuesday afternoon, quickly began recruiting substitutes but were only able to hire about 70 temporary replacements.
The teacher shortage disrupted classroom sessions at most of the six district schools and particularly affected the teaching day at its two high schools: Torrey Pines in Del Mar and San Dieguito in Encinitas.
“All the schools are functioning, but primarily the two high schools have been impacted,” said Supt. Bill Berrier. “We are hiring as many substitutes as we can. But, in the interim, you are forced to make due. We’ve been combining three or four classrooms.” Berrier said the schools will remain open.
The sickout marked another turn for the worse in the prolonged labor dispute, which teachers and parents describe as one of the most bitter events to engulf the district in over a decade.
Indeed, the stalled negotiations have involved much more than district officials: Recently, community members showed support for the faculty by holding a candlelight vigil and a March 2 rally that supporters say attracted 200 people. Last month, more than 100 students at San Dieguito High School staged a sit-in to support their teachers.
Since December, when the two parties declared an impasse, negotiations have proceeded with the help of a state mediator. Earlier this month, the school district presented an offer to the San Dieguito Faculty Assn., which overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, 227 to 5.
The sickout followed the parties’ last meeting held on Tuesday, when the district called a meeting to make another offer. Leaders of the faculty association scoffed at the second offer as well.
“Negotiations broke down again yesterday after they made their ridiculous offer,” said Bob Croft, who is heading the negotiating team for the faculty association. “Every day this situation goes on they are placing themselves deeper and deeper into a hole.
“In the 10 years that I have been here, I have never seen the teachers so frustrated and angry,” Croft said.
No further meetings have been scheduled between the two parties, and officials did not know whether the sickout would continue.
“I hate to speculate. . . . I have no idea if there will be another one,” said Croft, who is also an English teacher at Earl Warren Junior High in Solana Beach. “But I want to make it clear that the faculty association does not encourage or support such activities.”
District administrators plan to keep the schools open and are continuing to hire more substitutes in anticipation of a sustained teacher absence.
“We are anticipating that the sickout will continue,” said Don Kemp, assistant superintendent/personnel. “We have no indication otherwise, so we have to be prepared.”
Kemp said an effort was made to contact all absent teachers, who were asked to bring a note from a doctor upon their return, stating that they were ill. The normal absentee rate among district teachers is 6%, Kemp said.
If there is evidence of unjustified absences, the district has the right to take punitive actions, which could include docking of pay and dismissal, Kemp said. But, thus far, Kemp said, no decisions have been made to take such action.
“We are not looking at dismissing anyone,” Kemp said. “We have outstanding teachers, and we are looking positively to having them back.”
Health Coverage Lacking
One of the teachers’ major grievances is that the district does not offer comprehensive health coverage for families of its employees, Croft said.
Besides securing a better health benefit package, faculty members are seeking a wage increase, a right to binding arbitration and a seniority-based job transfer program.
“If a job opens up within the district, we want the district to give the teachers who are already here a chance instead of bringing in people from the outside,” Croft said.
Many parents and students expressed hope that their teachers will receive a fair settlement soon. Otherwise, not only will classroom schedules be disrupted, but the district could lose some of its best teachers.
“I think 99% of the student population is behind the teachers,” said Aaron Lowenberg, a San Dieguito High School senior who participated in the sit-in last month.
“When we got to school today, most of the classrooms didn’t have any teachers,” Aaron said. “I hear they’re lining up substitute teachers, but, if they don’t, there’s no way the school could run.”
June Lowenberg, Aaron’s mother, agrees.
“This has already disrupted our children’s education,” Lowenberg said. “I don’t think the teachers have received support from the administration. We’re at the point where we will lose our best teachers.”
The dispute is the last remaining teacher-district face-off in North County. Teachers in Vista reached agreement earlier this month after many months of working under an expired contract.