Capistrano Unified teachers to go on strike Thursday

Capistrano Unified School District teachers announced tonight they will go on strike Thursday, but held out hope of a quick settlement as they accepted an offer from school officials to resume

The call for new talks came just before a union deadline today. Union members voted overwhelmingly last week to authorize a strike after school officials cut off negotiations and ordered 10.1 percent pay cuts.

For the first time, union leaders said Monday they were willing to accept the district's 10.1-percent pay cuts as long as the salary reductions would expire June 30, 2011.

However, union leaders were angered today by a letter from John Rajcic, an attorney representing the school district, that was sent to the executive director of the union that represents the district's 2,200 teachers, Christine Balentine.

``Pre-conditioning a return to the bargaining table upon the acceptance of a negotiation proposal backed up by a threat of a strike constitutes, among other things, an unfair labor practice,'' Rajcic wrote.

``In any event, as previously indicated, 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' regarding the recently imposed reductions.''

Said union president Vicki Soderberg: ``If you're really serious about bargaining, you don't start out by threatening legal action. Once again, the Capistrano Board of Education is attempting to equivocate and obfuscate instead of negotiate.''

The new talks would begin Thursday, the same day teachers plan to start their strike.

``Despite the board's vague offer to commence negotiations `regarding various issues,' they are flatly rejecting to bargain (the union's) specific, unambiguous proposal,'' Soderberg said.

``We clearly gave them a chance to avert a strike and their refusal leaves teachers no choice... If we determine that (school officials) are serious about reaching a settlement, teachers and students can be back in the schools Friday. It's up to the board to prove they're serious about reaching a

School board members voted March 31 to cut off negotiations with the association and impose 10.1 percent pay cuts for teachers. Union officials had previously supported a mediator's recommendation to cut salaries 6.32 percent, with the additional 4 percent saved through class-size increases.

Union leaders are demanding that school officials make the pay cuts temporary, promise not to increase class sizes, restore salary, unpaid work days and benefits if ``unforeseen funds are received.''

District officials could not be immediately reached tonight.

The most recent reduction of teachers' salaries and benefits will save the district about $19.9 million, according to district spokeswoman Julie Hatchel, but the district still needs to close a $34 million budget gap.

School board President Anna Bryson pointed out last week that school administrators took a 10 percent pay cut last year, but because that affects only about 150 people, district leaders needed to find savings from teachers' salaries.

Reduced revenue from the state and poor financial planning left the school board with little choice, Bryson said.

School officials are confident they can keep classes going during a strike, Bryson said.

``The board's rejection of our clear proposal and their continued ambiguity has put us where we never wanted to be,'' Soderberg said.

``It is unfortunate that the board wants chaos instead of clear communication. It has never been the teachers' goal to strike, but if it takes walking the picket line to bring the board to a place of clarity and mutual respect then teachers have no choice.''