ORANGE — The teachers union announced plans for a one-day strike today after a walkout set for Wednesday was called off at the last minute.
Union officials said weeks ago that teachers would strike for two days starting Wednesday, but the union pulled a last-minute switch on the district: Teachers picketed their schools early in the morning and then went to class as usual.
Notice of the planned strike had allowed officials of the Orange Unified School District ample time to prepare for hundreds of teacher absences at its 42 schools. But when the district got wind of the change Tuesday night, officials wound up scrambling anyway, this time to tell substitutes that they were not needed.
School officials and some teachers were left seeking explanations for the last-minute strike cancellation, wondering whether it was a tactic to upset the district.
"I think it was done to keep [district officials] on their toes," said Villa Park High School history teacher Richard Brunt, who stood in a picket line at the school Wednesday morning with about 30 teachers.
Whatever the reason, the school board landed in the awkward position of denouncing the district's 1,500 teachers for not striking. If the delay was merely a ruse, said school board President Linda Davis at a news conference, it harmed the community. "If it's a game, it's cruel and unfair," she said.
John Rossmann, president of the Orange Unified Education Assn., said the walkout was canceled because district negotiators had invited the union back to the bargaining table. There was no ruse, no plot, no smoky back-room plan, he said.
"We had a couple of feelers from them Tuesday and didn't want to pass up any opportunity. That's the main reason the committee made the decision," he said. Those negotiations, he said, ultimately led nowhere.
At a union meeting Tuesday, someone asked whether the delay could be a labor tactic and the rumors spread from there, Rossmann said.
Other union figures, however, offered different explanations of why the strike was called off.
Kay Casserly, one of Canyon High School's union representatives, said it was a ploy to throw the school district off guard. "I think it was a good strategy," she said.
A third union official, Co-Executive Director Val Steine, offered another explanation: The union did not receive enough responses from union representatives at district schools to proceed with the strike.
The union is required to notify the district by 4 p.m. the day before a strike, Steine said. Although union officials determined that the vast majority supported a strike, they were not able to tally the votes by the deadline, Steine said.
Rancorous contract negotiations between the district and the teachers union have lasted for two years. District officials have said they cannot afford to pay what the teachers are asking. Union officials question the district's budget figures.
Negotiations are stuck over the district's decision last month to unilaterally impose a contract for 1998 to 2000, giving teachers an 8% raise over the two years. The union wants that contract mediated, but the district wants to move on to negotiating the contract for the 2000-2001 school year.
On Wednesday afternoon, teachers and union officials apparently were in agreement on one point--today's strike. The district was notified at 2 p.m.
Some parents said they are worried about the effect of the walkout on their children. Nearly a quarter of the district's students stayed home Wednesday.
Times staff writer Lisa Richardson contributed to this story.