Capistrano Unified teachers end strike

Teachers in the Capistrano Unified School District returned to classes Tuesday after reaching a midnight deal to end a three-day strike that disrupted academic and extracurricular programs and shrank attendance in Orange County’s second-largest school district.

The tentative agreement would maintain a 10% pay cut that was imposed by the school board in March but would restore salary and furlough days if school revenue increases.

Full details were withheld pending approval of the three-year deal by the union’s membership. A vote is expected in the next few weeks.

The deal was struck after more than 32 hours of closed-door negotiations that began Thursday, the same day most of the district’s 2,200 teachers formed picket lines.

“Teachers are so happy to be back in the classroom and happy they have this tentative agreement,” said Vicki Soderberg, president of the Capistrano Unified Education Assn., which represents teachers. “They feel proud that they stood up to the school board and said you cannot treat us this way.”

District officials also would not comment on the specifics of the agreement but said they too were pleased with the outcome.

“We could not be more delighted to have our family back together again and to have the teachers back in classrooms with the children who admire them so much,” said Anna Bryson, president of the district’s Board of Trustees.

The pay cut and other benefit reductions, Bryson said, were needed to help close a $34-million budget shortfall. But the tentative deal only covers only about $19.9 million of that amount. The district wants to impose similar pay cuts on all employees. Last year, 150 administrative staff got a pay cut between 10% and 11%.

The district had no information on attendance or the rescheduling of athletic games and other activities that had been disrupted by the strike, nor any estimate of the costs of employing nearly 600 substitute teachers during the walkout.

School attendance had been sharply affected. On Monday, only 13% of regular classroom teachers crossed picket lines to get to their classes while 37% of the students in the 51,000-pupil district showed up for school, officials said. The attendance rate for high schools was only 17%.

But there were signs that operations were returning to normal. News of the breakthrough was posted on the district website near midnight and a phone message informing them of the tentative deal was sent to all families and employees early Tuesday morning, spokeswoman Julie Hatchel said.

Word reached San Clemente High School Principal George Duarte about 6 a.m.. and he rushed to campus to inform parents and teachers. The automated message system initially blocked the calls because of the early hour, he said.

“But it was good news and I wanted to tell them that school was open and to come on down,” Duarte said. “For some of the teachers it was the first time that they had heard.”

As a result, many students and teachers were late, but the parking lot filled as the day wore on. Duarte said athletic practices resumed Tuesday and sports contests were scheduled to resume Wednesday.

Many students feared that the strike would affect their studies, especially those for upcoming Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, which can influence college admittance.

“I’ve asked teachers to work with kids and to make preparing for these to be a priority,” Duarte said. “They have a lot of energy and want to reconnect with students. And kids are some of the most resilient members of any population. They’re going to be right back on track.”