Striking out

Amid all the huffing and puffing going on in preparation for a possible teachers’ strike, one thing is clear: Nobody will win if a strike takes place, and the children of Chico will suffer the most.

It’s not hard to see how things got to this point, with the teachers’ union threatening to strike and the Chico Unified School District drawing up strike contingency plans and advertising for $275-a-day strikebreakers. The truth is that both sides believe strongly in their cause, and both have shown bad faith at times.

The district could have done a lot more in recent years to foster good will with its teachers. It was revealing, earlier this year, when $6 million in unexpected new money finally came from the state, and the school board president quickly advised that the district spend as much of it as possible before the unions laid claim to it. Sure, the $1.5 million the school board voted to spend on a computerized information system, new vans, maintenance and retiring debt wouldn’t have made a huge difference in the raise it’s able to offer. But symbols have substance, and the superintendent and trustees showed where their priorities lay.

What the teachers want, even more than money, is to be treated with respect and appreciation. When the district abruptly withdraws $440,000 in new grants, as it did in 1998, saying the Legislature never meant teachers to have it, teachers naturally feel betrayed. When the district opens contract negotiations, as it did in 1998, by offering no raise whatsoever, teachers feel disrespected. When the district yanks “golden handshake” retirement benefits out of the hands of employees who had already made plans to leave, as it did in 1999, teachers feel unappreciated. (That last move is the one that cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars when it was ruled illegal.)

With tensions still thick since the last near-strike, the teachers are probably so numb this year that they’ve trusted only what their union leadership has told them: “There’s lots of new money. The district wants to keep it from you. Other teachers got double-digit raises.” Forget about context, because the damage was already done.

But this year—and the next, and the next—the money’s just not there. Declining enrollment means declining state dollars, and the CUSD already commits 86 percent of its budget to employees. Progressively impartial parties, from a state auditing organization to a neutral fact-finder, have seen the numbers and believed them. How many times does the union need to hear “$11 million in cuts by 2003-04” before it believes it?

If it’s truly all about the children, it’s time for both sides to set aside their pride and compromise. The district can afford more than the 4.5 percent it’s offered, and the teachers would take less than 10.29 percent. Stop the political posturing and meet somewhere in the middle. Otherwise, no one will win.