Capistrano Unified teachers cast strike votes

More than half of Capistrano Unified's teachers' union members cast ballots on first day of strike vote.
More than half of Capistrano Unified's teachers' union members cast ballots on first day of strike vote.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Capping nearly a year of unproductive negotiations over salary cuts to help close their school district’s budget deficit, members of the 2,200-strong Capistrano Unified Education Association began voting yesterday whether to give their union’s leaders authority to order a strike.

Cars caused bottlenecks at the Aliso Viejo business park where the Association is headquartered and where the vote took place. Union president Vicki Soderberg oversaw the voting.

“We have done everything. I have spoken to the school board multiple times, saying let’s come to the table. We’ve written letters, we’ve had phone calls, we’ve had teachers demonstrating at school sites almost constantly with the message – negotiate, sit down and talk with us,” she said.

Negotiations reached impasse late last year and the board of education did not adopt recommendations made by an independent mediator earlier this year. Despite teachers’ union opposition, Capistrano Unified’s board of education voted last month to impose a 10 percent cut to teacher salaries. Capistrano Unified board president Anna Bryson said the teacher salary cuts are needed to keep the district solvent as it faces a nearly $40 million budget deficit next fiscal year.

San Clemente High School teacher Sheri Campbell said she was shocked the board imposed cuts without buy-in from teachers. “The main message that we need to get across is that what they are trying to railroad down the throats of the parents, the teachers, and the children in our district is unacceptable.” Campbell said she voted to go on strike.

The vote in the parking lot of union headquarters had a pro-strike feel. Signs in favor of a strike were visible on many cars. Within a few yards of the ballot boxes, vendors sold paraphernalia in support of a recall of two board members who supported the teacher salary cuts. Dana Hills High School teacher Norm Townsend hawked pro-recall bumper stickers for $2 each. One read, “Stop the Madness.”

“There’s a strong element at Dana Hills High School to vote for the strike. For one, it means the life of our union. For two, they’ve backed us into the corner,” Townsend said, explaining his vote to go on strike.

The Capistrano Unified Education Association was to debate the merits of a strike at a closed-door member meeting. Union leaders said Coast Hills Church canceled the use of church facilities at the last minute and the union decided to carry out the vote on the same day.

Margi Westling, a teacher at San Clemente High School for 22 years, said teachers should have debated the pros and cons of a strike. She voted against a strike in spite of her anger toward the board of education. “I’m very upset by this board, I feel completely disrespected. I think it’s so unfair for us to have to take permanent pay cuts when, you know it’s a temporary problem and other school districts have settled, reasonably. And I think it’s completely inhumane of the board to be doing this to us. But I also don’t want to ultimately strike against my colleagues either,” she said.

The strike vote continues this afternoon. If a strike’s approved by a majority vote, union leaders can call a strike at their discretion and must give the school district two days notice.