Teachers union in O.C. to begin striking

Teachers in Orange County’s second-largest school district are set to begin striking Thursday, after negotiations over pay and benefits with the Capistrano Unified School District collapsed.

Representatives from both sides offered to meet Thursday to try to break the deadlock, even as teachers begin walking picket lines.

The action by 2,200 teachers in Capistrano Unified threatens to disrupt classes, sports and other activities as administrators move to find substitute teachers and make contingency plans to keep schools open.

The district said on its website Wednesday that elementary and middle schools would maintain a regular schedule but high schools would dismiss at 1:35 p.m. After-school activities and athletic practices are canceled for the duration of the strike, and Thursday and Friday games will be rescheduled. Bus transportation to schools for most students is canceled.

The long-simmering dispute has become increasingly contentious as both sides have traded accusations of bad faith. Its origins, though, are in California’s budget crisis, which has led nearly every school district in the state to make deep cuts and potentially lay off thousands of teachers.

Capistrano Unified, with 56 schools and 51,000 students, is facing a $34-million budget shortfall for the 2010-2011 school year. In March, while labor discussions were still ongoing, the district imposed a 10% pay cut and other benefit reductions on teachers.

The Capistrano Unified Education Assn., which represents teachers, wants the district to make the pay cuts temporary and to restore salaries, unpaid work days and other benefits if “unforeseen funds” are received.

The union said its position was bolstered by a recent report from an independent fact-finder approved by both sides who recommended a three-year agreement reducing the size of the pay cuts and restoring some salary and benefits, depending on new state funding.

Union leaders said they had not received a satisfactory response from the district, forcing last week’s strike vote. Eighty-seven percent of voting members, or 1,600 teachers, approved the strike.

“Until we get assurances from the district that they’re serious about making the cuts temporary and with restoration language we cannot go back to the bargaining table,” said union president Vicki Soderberg. “We’re still open to having informal conversations but we need to have that understanding that they are sincere.”

The union set up a strike relief fund and so far has collected about $30,000 in donations from teachers and other supporters throughout Orange County.

District officials have argued that they are handicapped by continuing fiscal uncertainties.

But Capistrano Unified attorney John M. Rajcic said in a letter sent Tuesday to union leaders that the district is “willing and prepared to return to the bargaining table to commence negotiations regarding various items, including but not limited to ‘restoration language.’ ” But he warned that the union risked a charge of unfair labor practices by threatening to strike and stay away from the bargaining table unless its proposal was accepted.

Anna Bryson, president of the Capistrano Unified Board of Trustees, would not discuss details of the negotiations. But she urged parents to send children to school despite the disruptions.

“We are reassuring parents that the school environment will be stable and safe,” Bryson said. “We are confronting tremendous financial issues that are cascading in the state to every school district. It’s very sad but it’s real and we have to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, students said they feared the dispute would disrupt school activities and affect their studies. Some are concerned about their upcoming Advanced Placement exams.

“If we don’t have the opportunity to study in class with our teachers, we’re worried our scores might suffer,” said Abby Robson, 17, a senior at Tesoro High School in Las Flores. Robson also said a student production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” on which she is a crewmember, was postponed until next week.

“We’re hoping the strike only lasts one day and that the board is willing to negotiate something,” she said.