West Contra Costa teachers voted overwhelmingly Thursday night to authorize their union to call for a strike.
Ninety three percent of the 1,200 teachers who voted supported the strike authorization. However, the result does not mean teachers will strike immediately; in fact, United Teachers of Richmond president Pixie Hayward Schickele said she hopes the vote will help restart negotiations.
"My hope is that the district is going to sit up and pay attention that the teachers are very angry about what's going on, and that they'll come back to the table with some more reasonable offers," she said. "If not, we're headed for a disaster here in this district."
Schickele said that it was "pretty likely" teachers would be at work on the first day of school.
District spokesman Marin Trujillo called the vote "unfortunate" and said "everyone is in agreement that the next step is to come back to the table and negotiate. We need to work on a solution to a mutual problem, and that's a lack of state funding. That's something we have to reconcile; if we don't, we will go bankrupt."
The vote came as a response to forced contract changes made by the district's board of education earlier this summer, after months of negotiations failed to produce a new agreement. The district made changes to seniority provisions, increased class sizes, placed caps on teachers' current and retirement health benefits and eliminated benefits for teachers' dependents.
District officials have said they can no longer afford the current health care benefits, with the cost about doubling since 2001. They say the district is spending more money than it is bringing in, and that painful cuts are necessary to avoid bankruptcy.
Schickele has said there are other ways to make cuts -- such as shortening the school year -- and that many of the imposed changes to the contract have nothing to do with cost-saving.
Trujillo said Thursday night that "there are potential compromises."
Teachers gathered for the vote at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium Thursday were visibly frustrated.
"I'm ready to strike," said Rachel Porzig, a teacher at Riverside Elementary. "I feel it's disrespectful for the district to ask us to take more on our plate. We already deal with a lot."
Marcella Jamerson, a teacher at Wilson Elementary and the mother of five children, said the changes to the health care benefits "would be devastating for me. They didn't give us raises so this would be like a pay cut," she said. "They can't balance the budget on the backs of teachers. We're professionals. This benefits issue is a line in the sand."
Many teachers said the health care benefits are what attracted and kept them at the district, despite a challenging teaching environment and low pay.
"If this benefit went away, why would people come here?" said Tammy Bankhead, a teacher at Chavez Elementary.
The strike vote came just five days before classes begin for the new year. District officials have prepared for a possible strike with written materials, and the school board recently approved paying substitute teachers more than $300 per day -- instead of the typical $110 to $120 per day. They have asked that parents continue to send kids to school even if a strike occurs.