Education

Lucia Mar school district trustees vote to prepare for possible teacher strike

Lucia Mar Unified School District parents and families march through the Arroyo Grande Village in support of the teachers union in March.
Lucia Mar Unified School District parents and families march through the Arroyo Grande Village in support of the teachers union in March. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Lucia Mar Unified School District trustees authorized emergency strike preparations Tuesday night ahead of an eleventh-hour mediation session today between the district and its teachers.

Representatives of the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association say that if a compromise on teachers’ salaries is not reached during mediation between the two sides today, it will hold a strike authorization vote Thursday. If the majority of its members vote in favor, the union could proceed with a strike once a final negotiation attempt with the district is made.

A date for a possible strike is not yet set, Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association President Donna Kandel said Tuesday, as both sides still hope that they can reach a compromise.

“Strike is really a last resort,” Kandel said.

It would be the first teacher strike in the district’s history.

The district and teachers union have been at odds since their last contract expired in June, with neither side seeming close to finding a compromise between the 10 percent raise teachers are demanding and the 2 percent raise the district has offered.

The district claims it does not have the funding to support a 10 percent raise and remain financially solvent in the long run, while the teachers union claims that its salaries have fallen behind that of neighboring San Luis Coastal Unified School District and Santa Maria-Bonita School District, making it difficult to recruit and retain teachers in the area.

The Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association represents about 580 teachers in the county’s largest school district, which stretches from Nipomo to Shell Beach.

Before the Tuesday night board of trustees meeting, several hundred teachers, students and parents gathered to voice support for the union in a pair of marches throughout Arroyo Grande.

Lucia Mar Parents United hosted a march from the Village to the district office, and the union hosted its own rally and march an hour later while the board was in closed session.

Hundreds packed the Pacific Christian Center before lining up outside for a protest march in front of the district offices across the street.

Marchers chanted, “Two won’t do,” as they walked throughout the neighborhood next to Arroyo Grande High School, eliciting enthusiastic honking from several cars passing by.

Shortly after 7 p.m., a sea of blue shirts stating, “We are united,” filled the district board room for the regular meeting, taking all available seats and lining the walls. Many held signs proclaiming their support for teachers.

Passions ran high during the meeting as the threat of strike loomed overhead, with several audience members getting up to speak during public comment and voicing their desire that both sides come to an agreement during Wednesday’s mediation.

One teacher tearfully asked the board to do everything it could to reach an agreement because otherwise she would be moving to the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. Another warned the board that those members seeking re-election in 2016 would be voted out if a fair agreement is not reached.

Despite public commenters asking otherwise, the board voted 6-1 to adopt the resolution authorizing Superintendent Jim Hogeboom to take emergency action to prepare for and react to a strike, with Don Stewart dissenting.

“We want a settlement tomorrow, but we have to be ready,” board President Vicki Meagher said during discussion of the resolution, as shouts arose from the audience. “That’s why I’m going to support this (resolution).”

In advance of Tuesday night’s vote, Lucia Mar already has begun preparing its schools for a strike.

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in California, so we don’t have a lot of people who know how to deal with this,” Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Chuck Fiorentino said. “We’re treating this like we would treat any emergency situation, like a bomb threat, a flood or an earthquake.”

According to the California Teachers Association, approximately 170 strikes, sickouts and other work stoppages have occurred in California since 1975.

On March 10, the Lucia Mar school board voted to hire a collective bargaining consultant to prepare for a possible strike and is paying James C. Whitlock $155 an hour for his services.

Whitlock gave the district several points to focus on while preparing for a strike, Fiorentino said. Those include coordinating a strike response plan and team, setting up a communications plan, ensuring site security and planning for “post-strike recovery,” he said.

Lucia Mar is also in the process of recruiting replacement staffing in the form of substitute teachers and administrators who hold current classroom credentials. It is also offering to help any qualified persons who wish to substitute during the strike obtain their 30-day emergency credentials.

The district is offering close to triple the standard daily substitute pay of $95 a day for anyone who works during the strike, Fiorentino said.

Besides recruitment, Lucia Mar is also drafting an “enrichment curriculum” to teach during a strike in the place of the absent teachers’ existing curriculums. The temporary curriculum could consist of “things we don’t often get to while teaching,” Fiorentino said, such as business and finance or oceanography lessons and learning games and activities.

Plans will also have to change depending upon the impact to specific campuses. One dilemma the district would face is trying to estimate how many substitute teachers it might need to cover for those on strike.

Many families choose to keep their children home during work stoppages such as this, Fiorentino said, because of concerns for safety or because they wish to show support for the teachers.

As a result, some classes may have to be doubled up, or groups of students may need to meet in the school cafeteria or gym for a movie while the district gathers the correct number of teachers for the site, he said.

“This is going to be such a flux,” he said. “It will be changing minute by minute at every school site.”

Strikes typically last between two to five days, Fiorentino said, though it is possible that the union could draw out the strike longer.

During that time, the district’s goal is to keep schools “open, safe and operational,” Fiorentino said.

“There’s no winner in a strike,” he said. “The district doesn’t win, the teachers don’t win, the kids don’t win. There are no winners here.”

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