ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : ...

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Six local school districts want to excuse teachers from jury duty, saying it is a financial hardship to pay substitutes to replace them in the wake of the county's bankruptcy.

Administrators in several districts also are moving to limit the number of days teachers on jury duty will be paid. The Irvine Unified School District has already informed teachers that they will receive pay for just one day of service. Until now, the district offered unlimited jury pay.

"The district told teachers to tell the judge that they would not be paid for further days," said Steve Garretson, president of the Irvine Teachers Assn. "There will be a lot of teachers with financial hardships if they're not allowed to get out" of jury service.

Officials at Orange County Superior Court expressed concern about the districts' actions, saying it could force them to request more potential jurors from the general population.

"I certainly wouldn't want to see the school districts or anyone else make those kinds of restrictions," said Pat Hill, assistant Superior Court executive officer for court operations.

School officials said their purpose is to save the $80 to $100 a day it costs to hire a substitute teacher each time a full-time instructor is called to jury duty.

Unlike businesses or other government agencies that often use other employees to cover for absent workers, school districts are required to have credentialed teachers in all classrooms during the school day.

"It's important that teachers fulfill their civic duty. (But) times are tough right now," said Anaheim City School District Supt. Meliton Lopez. "Now we are considering asking to excuse them for the time being."

The Anaheim Union High School District--which might also ask that teachers be excused from jury service--said it spends $75,000 a year on substitutes while its teachers do their civic duty.

"That's a teacher and a half, or a lot of computers," said Supt. Cynthia F. Grennan.

Brea Olinda Unified School District officials estimated that teachers on jury duty have cost the school system about $2,500 so far this school year.

"But it only takes one teacher getting on one long trial to run that up," said Pete Boothroyd, assistant superintendent for human services. "A few years ago, we had one teacher who served on a murder trial that lasted an entire school year. We not only had to pay the teacher's salary, we had to pay a sub" $90 a day.

Boothroyd said keeping employees off juries is a tempting idea but added his district hasn't discussed it yet.

The Magnolia and Irvine school districts were among first to consider the issue.

Each time a teacher or other "essential employee" is called for service, Magnolia School District Supt. Paul S. Mercier said he plans to send a letter to the court explaining the district's financial problems and requesting that the employee be excused until summer vacation.

"Due to the county bankruptcy, we will petition the courts not to use teachers on juries," Mercier said.

Mercier said he already has begun negotiating with teachers to reduce the number of paid jury days from an unlimited number to five per year.

Irvine Unified School District has included some flexibility in its plans. If the courts refuse to excuse a teacher, Deputy Supt. Susan Long said, "We will deal with that on a case-by-case basis."

Several other districts are considering limiting jury pay, but said the move would require amending labor contracts.

"Jury duty is part of the contracts we have with our employees," said Robert L. French, superintendent for the Orange Unified School District. "To make any change to that would require discussion with employee associations, and we are considering that."

Both court officials and school leaders said limiting the number of teachers from the jury pool could be a blow to the judicial system.

"I hope the school districts continue to support the jury system as they have in the past," said Hill, of the Superior Court. "The fact remains that the Constitution provides for a person to have access to the jury system. Without employees participating, we cannot fulfill that part of the Constitution."

Teachers are considered good jurors, Grennan said, not only because they are educated, but because they usually are available for lengthy trials.

In the past, most districts provided unlimited paid time off to allow employees to serve on juries, a benefit employees' unions are reluctant to give up, school leaders said.

By contrast, many private employers limit the paid jury days they grant to their employees.

Times correspondents Leslie Earnest, Bert Eljera, Alan Eyerly and Jon Nalick contributed to this report.

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