The Day the Teachers Left: Inside the CUSD Teacher Strike

Teachers on strike in the Capistrano Unified School District reached a tentative agreement with the board on Tuesday to make 10 percent pay cuts temporary, ending a three-day strike in the second largest district in Orange County.

About 2,000 of the district's 2,200 teachers walked out last Thursday—the latest symptom of unrest in California's troubled public education system.

"We'd rather be teaching," said Aliso Niguel High School English teacher Kati Bennett, who was picketing outside her school in Aliso Viejo Thursday morning. "We've been pushed to this point because we feel so disrespected and so without a voice. So this is our voice."

The outrage was sparked by the board's decision to impose permanent 10 percent pay cuts on teacher salaries after refusing to continue negotiations with Capistrano Unified Education Association, the local teachers union. The district faces a $34 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year.

The union accepted the cuts on the condition that they be temporary instead of permanent, and that their pay be restored if unforeseen funds become available to the district. When the board did not move to negotiate these points, the union voted to authorize a strike.

At that point, the board agreed to return to the bargaining table and discuss "restoration language" in the contract over pay cuts, signaling a willingness to compromise. But the union decided to proceed with the strike anyway.

"They made vague statements that weren't in any way serious about what we're asking," said Bennett. "It is the language of the contract and the mentality—the very anti-teacher feelings we have been getting from the board."

About 600 substitute teachers reported to the 56 campuses to oversee large classes and administer "alternative" lesson plans while teachers were on strike.

On Thursday at Aliso Niguel High School, junior Kelsey said her class was given personality tests to fill out in lieu of regular class work.

"I feel like we're animals just being stuck in a room for five hours doing nothing," she said.

Of the 60 students assigned to Kelsey's classroom, only 19 showed up. Unofficial counts estimated only 1100 of Aliso Niguel's 3000 students reported to school Thursday morning.

The high absentee rate was not limited to Aliso Niguel. Official attendance records show district-wide less than half of elementary and middle school students were in school and less than a quarter of high school students attended classes on Thursday. By Friday those numbers dipped even lower with only 10 percent of high school students at school.

David Song, a student organizer with the Student Association for Education at Aliso Niguel High School, worked with the principal to arrange alternative accommodations for Advanced Placement students in the final throes of study before exams this May.

After reporting to their assigned classes Thursday they were allowed to gather in the school gym to study materials for their AP classes, rather than participate in the substitute classroom programming.

"I don't know how much this is going to benefit AP kids but at least students got something organized, some alternate program so that it's not a total waste of time," said Song.

Some AP students had planned to continue the study sessions as long as the strike continued. Because attendance was anticipated to be so low, the principal had arranged for AP students to use empty classrooms. But many others were expected to stay home.

Kelsey, who was studying for the Environmental Science AP exam, said she would rather study at home or even at Starbucks than in the disorganized chaos of her classroom.

"At least I can have my books spread out in front of me where I can just look up anything and have the Internet accessible. Hopefully we can get some study groups together and just try to help each other as much as we can."


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Hopefully some money comes up so that school budgets don't get cut any further. Education funding is very important to the future of all our youth.

CEO of West Valley Detention Center