ORANGE : Tough Talks Ahead for Teachers' Union

Negotiators in the Orange Unified School District will have their work cut out for them next week when bargaining begins over a new contract for 1,200 teachers.

The district's initial proposal recommends a 4% rollback in salaries, a freeze on raises, and cuts in health and welfare benefits. The proposal has drawn sharp criticism from the teachers' union.

Ruby Penner, president of the Orange Unified Education Assn. and chief negotiator for the certified employees, called the district's plan the "most negative bargaining proposal I have seen in the 23 years I have been" with the district.

The district realizes that its proposal is tough, said Richard Donoghue, assistant superintendent for support services. The problem is that during the past two years of fiscal crisis, Orange Unified has already cut programs and staff and has few options left to trim.

"It's not a board problem, it's not a union problem, it's a basic fight for survival," he said. "The goal of the board is to protect the financial integrity of the district and not have any one group contribute inordinately."

District financial officers have warned that Orange Unified may need to slash up to $5 million from its $106-million budget next academic year if the state's fiscal crisis continues. A revised state budget is expected next week, said Joyce Capelle, district fiscal services director.

Unfortunately, "the big bucks will not be (cut) without effort and they are going to have to come out of health and welfare at this point," Capelle added. Proposed cuts in salary and benefits to classified employees--clerical workers and other support staff--will be similar when those negotiations begin later this year.

A 4% salary rollback for teachers could save the district $2.2 million next year, according to district figures. Salary freezes would save about $500,000; cuts in health and welfare benefits would save $470,000 while a decrease in health coverage for dependents of all employees would save up to $1.6 million.

The teachers are not unrealistic about the district's financial crunch, Penner said.

"We recognize that this is not the best of years financially for the district and we will try to hold our own and not lose ground," she said.

"We're not looking for pie in the sky," Penner added. "We're just looking for them to be fair."

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