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The Contrast Is Striking : Husband Pickets, Wife Crosses Line to Help Feed Students at Son's School

May 05, 1994|MARTIN MILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — Things are kind of quiet around John and Pat Miller's household these days.

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John Miller, 41, a food delivery driver for the Orange Unified School District, spent Wednesday morning on a union picket line outside district headquarters.

A few blocks away, his wife, Pat, 39, crossed a picket line to help fill food service gaps at Handy Elementary School created by striking non-teaching employees, like her husband. She helped coordinate and serve hundreds of breakfasts and lunches to students at Handy Elementary--one of the schools on her husband's meal delivery route.

The Miller family has suddenly become a house divided as a strike by hundreds of classified employees enters its third day, straining bus, child-care, custodial and food services in the district of 26,000 students.

"It's very quiet now at home," said the Millers' 8-year-old son Kevin, a second-grader at Handy Elementary. "My mom, she helps out at school. And in the afternoon, my dad, he goes out on strike."

Few families are facing the inner turmoil that the Millers are trying to cope with, which began Monday when an estimated 400 members of the California School Employees Assn., Chapter 67, went out on strike. But with union and district officials refusing to back down in their fight over a school board-imposed contract, there is no telling when the tension may ease up.

"I respect what she's doing. She has to do what she has to do," said John Miller, a district worker for the past two years. "But when you pay your union dues, you've got to back the union."

For Pat Miller, who works part time as a teacher's assistant at Handy, the welfare of the students outweighs all other concerns--even her husband's predicament.

"He was real mad at me--he called me a Benedict Arnold," said Pat Miller, who was named Volunteer of the Year last year at Handy Elementary. "I feel for the working person. I mean, how much are you going to take before you do something?

"But," she added, as she unloaded another tray of burritos from the oven for a line of hungry students, "I'm doing what I'm doing for the kids."

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John Miller said he too believes he is acting in the best interest of his children, Kevin and 6-year-old Danielle. He said a potentially job-threatening clause in the contract forced upon the union by the school board in March pushed him to strike.

The clause empowers the district to lay off workers or reduce their hours without negotiating. The contract also imposes three furlough days and reductions in health benefits.

"I can live with the insurance cutback," said John Miller, who is also a Little League coach. "But it's not right that they can lay you off and cut into your hours like that."

District officials defend the contract, saying it is vital in keeping the cash-strapped district solvent. By saving about $485,000, the contract helps offset a $2.2-million budget shortfall this year, they say.

The 3-day-old strike continues to try the patience of hundreds of district parents, now forced to battle through traffic jams in dropping off and picking up their children. About 7,000 students in the district are charged $180 per month for bus transportation, but during the strike only special education students are receiving service. Although it has released no specific details, the district has promised that parents will receive credit for days of lost bus service.

Also hard hit by the strike have been child-care, custodial and food services. Six child-care centers remain closed, and of the 18 open, many are short-staffed. And students normally accustomed to hot meals are complaining about the cold food they are being served.

That's where Pat Miller and scores of other parent volunteers around the district have helped ease the service cutbacks caused by the strike. Around the district's 37 schools, parent-volunteers are picking up trash, answering phones and helping prepare breakfast and lunch.

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Their efforts have not gone unappreciated by teachers and administrators, who themselves have had to double up on duties since the strike began.

Handy Elementary Principal Anita Jameson had only enough time to eat a pack of animal crackers for lunch Wednesday.

"Pat is our be-all and end-all. She's been an enormous help," Jameson said as she policed the lunch tables.

John Miller said that if the strike doesn't end soon, he may have to reconsider his decision to stay off the job. He said the walkout is taking a heavy toll of the family's finances.

"I've got to feed the family," he said.

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