COMPTON — Striking teachers returned to the classroom Wednesday as Compton Unified School District officials and union leaders agreed that progress has been made toward settling their dispute over higher pay.
"We're a lot closer than we've ever been before," Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough said. He declined to be more specific, but explained that negotiations now focus on "the total contract" and not just the pay raise that teachers would receive in the first year of a proposed three-year contract.
"From a general perspective, I'd have to say that we are starting to move," said Wiley Jones, executive director of the Compton Education Assn. "Both sides are starting to move. Whether it's just a turn in the road or the beginning of the end, we can't say."
When the teachers' contract expired Sept. 30, union leaders called for an immediate pay raise of 10% to 17.5%, which would bring salaries to the average for Los Angeles County. Of the county's 43 public school districts, Compton is the third largest, but its teachers are the lowest paid.
sh Mutual Movement
School officials initially said they wanted to give the teachers more money but could not afford to offer more than a 5% increase in the current school year followed by smaller increases over the next two years.
Jones said both sides have since moved somewhat from those positions: The district has offered to raise pay by 6% in the first year, while union leaders no longer insist that the first-year raise put salaries at the county average.
"We're just saying that we need something that will bring that about (over the contract's term)," Jones said.
The teachers' strike began last Tuesday when about 1,200 CEA members staged a one-day walkout after contract negotiations stalled. But when they returned to work the talks broke down a second time. So the teachers left on Friday and stayed away two more days.
Student attendance dwindled as a result, and the district lost more than $1.5 million in state funds, money that Kimbrough said could have gone toward teacher salaries. Slightly less than 22% of the district's 27,000 students were in school Tuesday, a district spokeswoman said.
Early this week, union leaders published a list of district expenses in an attempt to show that money for salaries is available if only school officials will rearrange their spending priorities. For instance, Jones said, the district plans to spend about $260,000 to refurbish several administrative offices. "Right there, there's some money that could be placed on the (bargaining) table," Jones said.
However, Kimbrough countered that union leaders "did not isolate any category where funds could be used for salaries."