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College District Talks Continue Amid Strike Concerns


While negotiations proceed, both sides in a bitter labor dispute are girding for the possibility of a faculty strike at Ventura County's three community colleges.

On Wednesday, teachers had worked without a contract for exactly one year. It also was the first day of district-imposed "work rules" that have been vehemently opposed by the teachers union.

The situation "has us upset, angry, frustrated and ready to do things," said Larry Miller, a Moorpark College biology teacher who also is president of the Ventura County branch of the California Federation of College Teachers. If the talks fail, the union's members will vote early next month on whether to allow their leaders to call a strike.

Classes for the first semester of the 1998-99 academic year are scheduled to begin Aug. 17.

The union has devised a strike Web page and a phone number--655-STRIKE--for strike-preparation updates, and a union committee is putting together fliers explaining the possibility of a strike both to students and the general public. Within the union, information is being circulated about an American Federation of Teachers-sponsored credit card that suspends minimum payments during strikes.

Meanwhile, the district is making its own plans, according to Richard J. Currier, the El Cajon attorney who speaks for the district on matters involving negotiations.

"We're doing a number of things that will become clear as we move along," Currier said. "Right now we're focusing on getting an agreement. But if that can't be done, we'll be ready."

Currier would not specify any measures the district has in mind.

For all the posturing, the campus at Ventura College was tranquil Wednesday. A statistics student napped on the grass, his guitar by his side. Students chatted over lunch at the cafeteria. At a laboratory in the campus' new science building, students in safety goggles heated a potassium compound over their Bunsen burners as they tried to determine how much oxygen it contained.

Their teacher, Ted Fickel, said he is not taken with the union's position. A part-timer in Ventura who teaches full time at Valley College in Valley Village, he said faculty members in the Ventura County district earn more than their counterparts in Los Angeles.

He also said he had no problem with being evaluated by his department's managers rather than his peers--a district demand the union has fought.

"I'm not against anyone coming in and listening to my class and passing judgment on me," said Fickel, who has taught Ventura College classes since 1993.

Fickel said he does not support a strike. He may, however, be in the minority. Union officials say their polls indicate 70% of the faculty--both full- and part-time teachers--would advocate striking if an agreement cannot be reached.

Tom Kimberling, a Ventura College accounting teacher who serves on the faculty's negotiating committee, described the mood of his colleagues as "somber."

Nobody has broken out the black armbands, but Kimberling has taken some defensive measures.

"I've got my son registered both here and at Santa Barbara City College," he said. "If we go on strike I don't want him to lose a semester."

The contract talks that began last year quickly snagged over salary and other issues, including evaluation procedures for teachers and seniority for long-term part-time teachers. Nearly 1,000 of the district's 1,300 teachers work part time.

After negotiations collapsed, an independent fact-finder recommended a settlement in May. It included a formula yielding a retroactive 5.7% raise for 1997-98.

Faculty members accepted it, but the district did not. Under the law, that rejection paved the way both for the district to impose its own work rules and for the union to strike if it chooses.

Under the work rules that took effect Wednesday, part-time teachers no longer can acquire the seniority that ensures them continued assignments. They also can be fired arbitrarily, according to Harry Korn, a Ventura College art teacher and head of the union's grievance committee.

"I said to a part-timer this morning, 'Today's the day. You now have no rights,' " Korn said, adding the teacher replied, "I know, I know."

Negotiations between the district and the union are to continue this week. Miller, the union's president, said the district appeared more flexible at a session Monday than it had in many months.

"It wasn't much, but it was something, considering prior movement," he said.

Miller said the union will submit a counterproposal in response to the one it received from the district at that session.

"We want to settle this thing," he said.

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