ACTON — This is a big week for Los Angeles County's smallest unified school district.
Friday is the Sweetheart Dance, when heart-shaped decorations and dreamy love ballads will fill the auditorium at Vasquez High School.
That same day, officials of the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District and representatives of its teachers union will resume a far more delicate dance. With a constantly shifting tempo and changing partners, it has lasted longer than any sock hop marathon: most of the 1990s.
At times, one dancer has thrown a drink in the other's face and stormed out. At others, they have drawn close enough to tie the knot.
The two sides express newfound optimism that they can negotiate a contract Friday for the district's nearly 100 teachers. If not, union leaders have set a strike vote for Feb. 19.
Labor peace might be the best tonic for anxious residents of the unique district, a diverse, 200-square-mile band of sprawling luxury ranches and shabby trailer parks in the High Desert between Palmdale and Santa Clarita. Almost five years ago it became a unified district, opening a high school. Trouble--some participants prefer "growing pains"--has dogged it ever since.
Vasquez High and High Desert, the district's middle school, still share a campus along a lonely stretch of the Antelope Valley Freeway. Temporary classrooms ring the modern, bright white main buildings that opened as the middle school in 1992. The main office is in a trailer.
"A lot of expectations weren't met," said Jim Duzick, president of the district's board of trustees. "Any time people's expectations are not met, you're not going to have a lot of happy campers."
A meeting of the schools' board of trustees on Thursday night should help shape Friday's contract talks. Board members are expected to decide the fate of Supt. Joseph Crawford, who the board placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday.
In a cautiously worded statement issued in part to quell community gossip, Acting Supt. Don Banderas said: "Allegations or rumors of any wrongdoing on the part of the superintendent are false. The board of trustees and Crawford continue to discuss future employment options."
Board members and district officials decline to further discuss the move, saying it was a personnel decision made in a closed session. But union members and longtime residents say Crawford, who arrived in 1996, represents the biggest stumbling block in the impasse.
"The morale of the teachers is definitely up" because of Crawford's suspension, said Grady Box, a negotiator with the California Teachers Assn., who runs a special crisis center for the teachers union at an Acton strip mall. Still, Box said the situation is the most bitter he has seen in his 29 years with the CTA's Lancaster office.
"Before collective bargaining came in during the late 1970s, we used to try to see who could be more macho," Box said. "It's very rare nowadays when we have this kind of confrontational bargaining."
Crawford, speaking just hours before his suspension, got in some shots of his own.
"This crisis was manufactured. There is no crisis," he said. "They play rough and then they call foul. . . . They're devoting energy that should be focused on teaching boys and girls."
A strike would be just the latest dramatic chapter in the history of the district of 2,200 students spread across two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.
In November 1992, residents voted by a 3-1 margin to add a high school and become a unified district. No more bus rides at dawn to the Antelope Valley, no more rooting for some other town's football team.
The following autumn, the district added ninth-grade classes and another grade each year, until the first high school class to attend all four years in Acton graduated last spring.
"Everyone advised them to wait and plan before they went ahead and put in the high school," said Diana Baker, a special education teacher and co-president of the Acton-Agua Dulce Teachers Assn., which represents about 90% of the teaching staff. "But with the prevailing call of 'Bring our children home,' they started to get the school together. And we never could get the community behind us once things didn't come together."
The teachers have worked without a new contract since Vasquez High opened in the fall of 1993. After failing to follow through on promises of raises in the early 1990s, the district abided by independent arbitrator Philip Tamoush's ruling in 1996 that it owed the teachers $318,000 in back pay. Checks were issued within a few months.
Crawford, though, took issue with other points of the arbitrator's award and hired his own auditor to review the numbers. He then decided to ask a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to vacate Tamoush's ruling. A court date for the appeal has been set for March 18.
The union maintains the district has refused to pay nearly $300,000 worth of additional back pay included in the arbitrator's ruling, covering the last couple of years of stagnant wages.