Capistrano teachers’ strike may continue into next week

What was supposed to be a one-day teachers’ strike in the Capistrano Unified School District could continue into next week after negotiations with the district over pay and benefits failed to be resolved Friday.

“We will be on strike until we have a settlement,” said Vicki Soderberg, president of the Capistrano Unified Education Assn., which represents 2,200 teachers.

Soderberg said that negotiations will resume Saturday afternoon but that she is not as optimistic as she was earlier Friday.

“We didn’t make any movement at all” on Friday, she said.

Teachers are protesting the school board’s decision to end negotiations and impose 10% pay cuts to help close a $34-million budget gap. The union wants the district to make the pay cuts temporary and to restore salaries, unpaid workdays and other benefits if “unforeseen funds” are received.

This is the latest dispute in a district beset by controversy in the last several years after the threatened closure of three elementary schools, two separate recalls of board members, and criticism of the decision to erect a $35-million administration building known derisively as the Taj Mahal.

Teachers had largely stayed out of the past disputes, but the breakdown of negotiations over the imposed pay cut led them to vote to strike.

More teachers joined the strike’s second day Friday. Hundreds of teachers hoisted signs and chanted slogans, joined by students and parents.

About 200 teachers — 11% of the teachers — crossed picket lines to get to their rooms, down from 12% Thursday, said Julie Hatchel, district spokeswoman. Nearly 600 substitute teachers were hired to supervise classrooms.

Attendance in the 51,000-student district was down substantially Friday: Less than one-third of students attended classes, Hatchel said. High school attendance was 10%, down from 23% on Thursday; middle school attendance was 27%, down from 39%; and elementary school attendance was 45%, down from 48%.

The union wants the pay cut to expire June 30, 2011, and other benefits to be restored if new state funding comes through.

“The particularly egregious condition is that they made the cuts permanent,” said Bill Guy, a communications consultant with the California Teachers Assn. who is working with the Capistrano union. “Every other district in Orange County has settled without permanent conditions. Everybody knows that some sacrifices have to be made, but we are asking the board for temporary cuts.”

School board President Anna Bryson said that the district is strapped for money and that the state’s fiscal uncertainties make the situation untenable. “There is a tsunami of financial events that every district has to deal with,” she said. “Everyone has to help us with the issue. We have to face hard-core realities.”

Bryson said the district is dealing not only with teacher negotiations, but also with unions that represent its thousands of other employees, including janitors and Teamsters.