Frustrated by their longest-ever contract dispute, teachers in the Whittier City School District have gone public, advertising their anger in a rented billboard, in a newspaper ad and by picketing.
Negotiations have stalled after nine months of talks, and members of the Whittier Elementary Teachers Assn. are not hesitating to express their displeasure. At a school board meeting last month, one teacher called board members thieves and another said they should be tarred and feathered.
"I've never seen the teachers as angry as they are now," said Lotus Warren, a teacher in the district for 20 years. "The morale is going down the tubes."
Other Districts Stalled
Whittier City's 265 teachers are not the only ones in Southeast Los Angeles County working without a contract. The 500 teachers in the Paramount Unified School District are also in the midst of one of their longest-ever contract disagreements, and plan to picket school board meetings beginning Tuesday. In the Lynwood Unified School District, the district and union representing 560 teachers are nearing a contract agreement after five months of negotiations.
Marilyn Stapleton, president of the Whittier Elementary Teachers' Assn., likened the Whitter City situation to what is happening in the Los Angeles Unified School District. On Wednesday, citywide representatives of the Los Angeles' 22,000 union teachers voted unanimously to authorize a strike vote.
The Whittier City union is in the next-to-last stage of the labor negotiation process mandated by state law before a strike vote can be taken.
"It's all we've been able to do to stop the teachers from taking a strike vote too soon," Stapleton said. "But we have to go through the (negotiating) channels first."
Whittier City teachers are seeking a 7% pay increase and an improved benefits package. The school board has offered a 5% to 5 1/2% raise, which Supt. Neal J. Avery said is all the district can afford. Currently, the top pay for Whittier teachers is $41,635 a year, according to the California Teachers Assn.
"We don't see any way to give the teachers what they want and keep the district solvent," said Avery, noting that the 5,800-student district had to cut $700,000 from this year's budget because of an 87-student enrollment drop after the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake that seriously damaged parts of Whittier.
Although Whittier City teachers want a raise, Stapleton said the more significant problem is a lack of trust and respect between the union and district.
"We feel the district does not think of us as professionals, with regard to salary and recognition of the job we do," Stapleton said, adding that she believes that only the resignation of Avery would lead to a speedy resolution of the contract dispute.
'Trust Factor' Needs Work
Avery, a 38-year employee of the Whittier City district, said contract discussions started becoming prolonged after the state mandated labor negotiations for school districts about 12 years ago.
He acknowledges that "the trust factor" needs some work, but he is at a loss about what to do. "I'd love to find some kind of format where the adversarial position left us," Avery said, "but this lack of trust started way back, and I haven't been able to change that."
The trust level in the Whittier City district plummeted in November, when teachers began picketing schools and board meetings. In December, the union took out a half-page advertisement about the dispute in a local newspaper, and in January rented a Whittier Boulevard billboard announcing in bold black letters: "Whittier City, Home of 265 unhappy, unappreciated teachers!"
Then came the school board's decision last month to place a two-minute limit on public speakers at board meetings.
The teachers were insulted by the action, saying the board passed the limit to try to silence those who wanted to complain about the negotiations. The board denied that the limit was aimed at teachers, but, "I will say our timing was poor," acknowledged board member Janet Henke.
For the next meeting, the union organized a parade of about 30 parents and teachers who each spoke for two minutes about their dissatisfaction with the time limit and the district.
"Look at these sullen faces of people I really don't like. I'm sick of this school board," teacher Paul Thomas told the board at the meeting, adding that he would like to see them tarred and feathered.
The school board voted unanimously to rescind the speaking limit at its Monday meeting
At another meeting, a teacher called the board members thieves because of a dispute about the spending of $265,000 that had accumulated in a fund used to pay health insurance premiums for teachers. The surplus occurred when the teachers did not spend as much as had been anticipated on medical bills.
Avery said the district spent the money to supplement the state's cost of living wage increase last year and to lease a school from the Los Nietos District while earthquake damage was repaired at Lincoln Elementary School.