O.C. teachers return after union reaches deal

MISSION VIEJO, Calif. After 32 hours of bargaining, the two sides made a breakthrough. The teachers arrived at the table with a new proposal on Monday afternoon and hammered out the differences. At 11:45 p.m., the announcement came that they had reached a tentative settlement.

Teacher Amal Khalil was happy to be back and greeted her students at Capistrano High School with hugs.

"They need instruction right now. They're about to pass AP exams, and we need to be there for each other right now, so I'm ecstatic to be back," Khalil said.

Both the school board and the /*union*/ said they are pleased with the deal.

It was five days of rancor. About 2,200 teachers took up pickets signs on Thursday after the school board cut salaries 10 percent. The teachers wanted assurance that the district would restore their salaries if money became available.

"Initially, the imposition on us did not have an end date, and that is really what we were fighting for. Not that that guarantees the economy's going to recover by that date, but that at that date, we can take a look at the situation again," said teachers union representative Michael Grabowski.

Though specific details have not been released, union officials report that the new agreement offers some restoration language. Teachers also won improvements in health insurance and new contract language that improves working conditions.

Many parents kept their children at home during the standoff between the union and the school board.

"We wanted what was best for them. They're here for our kids, and we want to make sure that they have the proper living that they need for themselves," said parent Gene Picciano.

But still, some parents said they were not happy about the strike.

"I think the union forces the teachers to go on a strike," said parent John Badger. "In fact, there were a lot of them that we know real well that didn't even want to go on a strike, just wanted to go back to school and be a teacher."

Attendance rates dropped to 50 percent - even 30 percent at some schools - among the 52,000 students in the district, the second largest in /*Orange County*/.

The strike could cause the district to lose some state funding based on student attendance, but the amount has not been calculated, schools spokeswoman Julie Hatchel said.

The budget crisis remains, and the school board must bargain equitably with other unions and still keep schools solvent.

"We will look forward to working with our teamsters and our CSCA, and of course, our administrators took their cut in June of last year," said board president Anna Bryson.

Union leaders met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the specifics of the agreement. If and when they accept it, they will present it to the rank-and-file, and teachers will have a chance to vote on it.

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