Published Online: April 28, 2010

2 Strikes Spotlight Calif. Teacher Frustration

California is facing a second teacher walkout in the span of a week as calls for cuts spawned by the state's deep budget crisis bring dozens of local school districts and unions to impasses.

Teachers in Alameda County's Oakland Unified School District plan a one-day strike Thursday on the heels of a three-day strike by teachers in Orange County's Capistrano Unified district.

"It's been a long time since we've seen teachers' strikes, but we're just being squeezed more and more," said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the 2,800-member Oakland Education Association teachers union.

The number of districts in the impasse stage of contract talks has soared this year, mostly over salary and benefit concessions.

About 100 out of 1,000 school districts are in negotiation stalemates, about five times the normal number, said Ron Bennett, president and chief executive of School Services of America, a company that provides mediation services to school districts.

Impasses are the first step to strikes. Next comes an independent fact-finding report and mediation. If that fails, a district can unilaterally implement its last offer and a union can take a job action.

Strikes are relatively rare, Bennett said, but he noted that the negotiating climate this year is extraordinarily tough with the state slashing funding to districts by 15 percent. Some 16,000 teachers lost their jobs last year, another 26,000 have been handed pink slips this year.

To hang on to their jobs, remaining teachers are being asked to accept salary cuts and furlough days and contribute more to health benefits, as well as handle larger classes and make do with less supplies and resources.

"California teachers have very difficult jobs. They have the highest class sizes in the nation to begin with, and the state has not changed its expectations and standards on student performance," Bennett said. "They're being asked to take pay cuts and furlough days."

On the other side, districts are facing budget deficits they must close. The state's largest district, Los Angeles Unified, is looking at a $640 million shortfall next school year.

"Administrators are feeling the tension," said Joe Jones, assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, noting that everyone from superintendents to janitors have taken pay cuts. "It's the times we're in."

While the Oakland job action may be largely a symbolic gesture, the Capistrano walkout, which was Orange County's first teacher strike in a decade, was closely followed by districts and unions whose contracts are in impasse.

Experts, however, say it is unlikely that California will see a rash of copycat strikes.

Strikes often result from larger issues endemic to a district that made negotiations thorny to begin with, said Charles T. Kerchner, education professor at Claremont Graduate University.

In Oakland, teachers' salaries fell behind their counterparts after the state ran the district for six years. The starting salary is $39,000 in Oakland, as compared to $50,000 in San Francisco.

In Capistrano, the walkout by more than 2,000 teachers was preceded by a long history of contentious school politics.

"I don't see these as a bellwether," Kerchner said.

Still, teachers say they are growing increasingly frustrated as state budget woes hit home.

According to the Legislature's nonpartisan budget analyst, the governor's 2010-11 state budget proposal includes $2.4 billion in program cuts to public education.

Last month, thousands of teachers and their supporters marched from Bakersfield to Sacramento, where they rallied on the Capitol steps to demand fully funded public education.

"California drops to the bottom in the nation in per pupil expenditure, but rises to the top in prison expenditure," Olson-Jones said. "It's unconscionable."

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