A federal court judge indicated Monday that he is curious about how, if at all, the Gay-Straight Alliance club at El Modena High School was involved in a fracas at a recent Orange school board meeting.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter expressed the sentiment during a Monday status conference hearing on a civil rights lawsuit filed by club founders Anthony Colin and Heather Zetin.
During the housekeeping meeting, the judge set a Feb. 6 date for the trial, which is expected to last seven days. However, the judge and lawyers on both sides said it was entirely possible the case could be resolved this fall on motions alone, without the need for a trial.
Carter's remarks came as the sides discussed how many depositions to take before the trial begins. The jurist said everyone would benefit from presenting as much information as possible.
"Frankly, I may want to know a lot about that [fracas] at the time of trial," Carter said. ". . . Was it a club activity, not a club activity, who was involved?"
Carter aid that he knew little about the incident, in which masked demonstrators favoring the Gay-Straight Alliance briefly scuffled with school administrators. During the incident, one principal was bitten on the arm; a 17-year-old girl was arrested in connection with the scuffle.
The school district's lawyer, James Bowles, said he did not know if the incident was related to the club, and he couldn't know for sure without asking questions about it during the discovery process.
Laura Brill, one of the lawyers for the student plaintiffs, said she doubted the fracas would figure prominently in the case. "I don't think it's going to be important at the trial," she said. "It's a sideshow."
In an unrelated development, a lawyer for the beleaguered Orange Unified School District said teachers have notified him of projected strike dates set for April 26 and 27. A union official confirmed those dates, but by late Monday he was not available for further comment. The district's last strike was in 1988.
The district plans to fend off a strike at the Public Employment Relations Board, which has issued three complaints of bad-faith bargaining against the union. Given those pending complaints, "they should not be allowed to strike," Bowles said. "We've asked them to come back to the bargaining table . . . and they have declined our invitation."
Relations between the union and the trustees have been sour for years. The two sides disagree at the negotiating table, but they also have deeper philosophical disputes. Board members say they are trying to keep the district on a stable financial footing after the spendthrift ways of previous, more liberal boards. Union officials contend the school district could find more money for salaries and benefits if they chose to.
The latest salvo involves the board's decision March 14 to unilaterally impose a salary and benefits plan that includes an 8% raise over two years.
The district's offer would retroactively pay entry-level teachers $32,975 and the most senior educators $56,560 this school year. The union's last proposal would have included more substantial raises for veteran teachers, with salaries ranging from $32,000 at entry level to a maximum of $63,980.
The union contends the district's package is too skimpy and may represent illegal one-sided bargaining.
The twists in the federal lawsuit and the contract negotiations have dogged the 31,000-school district for months.
In December, school board members unanimously voted to bar the Gay-Straight Alliance from El Modena's campus. The board based its decision on the premise that club members could discuss sex education issues that are tightly regulated by the state Education Code and that the club could be influenced by outside groups.
Carter ruled last month that the club may meet at El Modena until the lawsuit is resolved. The students filed their suit under an equal-access law that prohibits school districts that accept federal funds from choosing among noncurricular clubs based on what might be discussed at meetings.
Also at Monday's conference, lawyers on both sides of the Gay-Straight Alliance issue said they have been engaging in settlement talks, but no agreement is in sight.