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Salary Dispute Goes to Mediator

Education: Lengthy negotiations haven't settled Capistrano Valley teachers' pay demands.


After more than a year of negotiations, school board members and teachers in Capistrano Unified, the county's only district yet to agree on a labor contract, will enter fact-finding talks this month mediated by the state labor board.

Parents received fliers detailing each side's position at back-to-school events last week at the South County district's elementary and middle schools. More literature is expected to be handed out at this week's high school sessions.

The main sticking point has been salary, with the Capistrano Unified Education Assn. seeking a 4.11% raise, retroactive to last year. The district has offered a 2% raise for last year, with another 2% increase for the current year.

Officials from both sides said Friday they were eager to reach a settlement during the fact-finding hearing, which is expected to take two days.

The Public Employment Relations Board, an agency administering collective bargaining laws for the state's public employees, handles the process. The hearing involves one person from each party presenting arguments to a neutral, district- and union-approved arbitrator who will issue a report.

"The hope is that the report forms a basis for settlement," said Jerilyn Gelt, a labor relations specialist for the state board. "It's not binding, it's simply advisory."

About 40 districts statewide each year apply to start the fact-finding process, with a handful settling before it starts and more than half settling during the hearing, Gelt said.

District spokesman David Smollar said that the union was "resorting to hyperbole and rhetoric" in referring to the district's unspent money from last year.

That $18.5 million includes a state-mandated reserve, funding for state-required programs and $3 million set aside to fund the contract settlement with the district's 2,300 teachers, Smollar said.

"They're taking the ending balance from 2001-2002 and saying that it's a pot of unspent funds available to them," he said. "That's absolutely false, and they know it's false."

But Vicki Soderberg, the union's chief negotiator, said the district is maintaining a larger reserve than necessary, saving money it should put into teacher's salaries and consequently lowering teacher morale.

A PTA president at one Capistrano Unified elementary school said although she understands both sides' positions, she agrees with district officials that economic conditions preclude giving the teachers the money they're requesting.

"There are people in this economy who have no jobs or who aren't getting any [cost-of-living adjustment] increase," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because the parent organization officially remains neutral. "Compared to how other people have it, the teachers are doing OK."

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