At their cleverest, the yellow, diamond-shaped warnings that appear in so many automobile rear windows usually merit a genial chuckle.
But when about half of the Bonita Unified School District's 380 teachers started showing up for class wearing yellow badges that proclaimed "School Board Victim On Board," the reaction was considerably less jocular.
At first, school administrators warned the teachers orally that their references to the district's protracted contract dispute were inappropriate. The teachers, who have been seeking an 11% salary increase against the school board's offer of 5%, simply flipped over the badges and wrote, "We Are United."
By last week, dozens of teachers--district officials could not verify how many--had received admonitions in their personnel files saying their actions were "an inappropriate concerted activity" and had been judged as "defiance of authority and insubordination."
"We don't pay them to teach kids the union point of view," said James T. Johnson Jr., superintendent of the 9,000-student district that spans San Dimas and La Verne. "No matter how labor-oriented a person is, he knows he can't picket while he's getting paid."
But leaders of the Bonita Unified Teachers Assn., who say most teachers have continued to wear the badges, contend that such warnings are intended to intimidate the union and make it give up its contract demands.
"It really irritated us that (the superintendent) felt our statement of being united was threatening," said Dan Harden, vice president of the union. "This is just the beginning and not the end, I'm afraid."
Like clockwork, Bonita teachers and administrators this school year have renewed what is becoming a perennial confrontation over contract negotiations and district leadership.
While such disputes are not uncommon in the state's school districts, those in the Bonita Unified School District have been characterized by a rare intensity and what many teachers describe as a complete breakdown in trust.
Troubled All Year
Besides the yellow-badge controversy, the district has been troubled all year by charges that the superintendent improperly supported two school board candidates, an impasse in salary negotiations, allegations that teachers prematurely released a state factfinder's report and threats that a strike will be called if the contract dispute is not resolved.
"I think it's almost past anger now," said Don Warhurst, head of the union's Crisis Committee. "Last year, the teachers were angry. This year, the teachers are resolved. And I think resolve is much more of a commitment than an emotional response."
As they did last school year, when teachers worked all but six weeks without a contract, the union and the district have reached an impasse that required a state-appointed fact finder to recommend a settlement.
However, the contents of the fact-finder's report, issued last month, were almost overshadowed by a dispute over the timing of its release.
Made Public Immediately
Teachers, whom the fact finder recommended be given a 7% raise, made the non-binding report public immediately. District officials, saying state law mandates that they disclose the report, filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the Public Employment Relations Board two weeks ago.
While school board members were complaining that they had read "sensationalized" accounts of the fact finder's report in local newspapers before they had received it themselves, union leaders had already organized their membership and unanimously approved the report.
Then, with support from 93% of the 200 teachers present, union representatives were granted authority to call a strike if the school board did not similarly approve the report's contents.
'Swallow It With Us'
"We're saying, 'Swallow it with us,' " said Thomas L. Brown, a representative of the California Teachers Assn., who served as the union's negotiator on the fact-finding panel. "There are some pills in there, but we're willing to swallow them if you take your medicine, too."
But district officials, while conceding that the report contains "the seeds of an agreement," objected to what they called the union's confrontational technique.
"You don't deal with what's here by saying, 'Take it or leave it, or we'll strike,' " Johnson said. "The more (the union) spits at the board, the less likely the board is . . . going to approve an agreement."
The report, which favors some union and some district positions, will be discussed by the school board Wednesday. A negotiating session is scheduled for the following day.
Board members say one of the snags in accepting the report is the fact finder's conclusion that "the district appears to be in excellent fiscal condition."
The report states the fact finder's "tentative conclusion that the 7% increase . . . is within the district's ability to pay; it remains the obligation of the parties to identify where in the current budget those funds may be found."