Two new schools open amidst labor strife

Rio district prepared to pay $300 for subs

By David Courtland 02/01/2008

Against a backdrop of rainy weather seemingly reflecting their relationship with teachers, Rio School District officials formally launched two new El Rio schools Jan. 24 with help from Oxnard's Masonic lodge.

Masons Lodge 341 members dedicated wall-mounted plaques, each sealing a time capsule, at each school with ceremonies attended by Rio's board of trustees, Superintendent Sherianne Cotterell, Oxnard city officials and Supervisor John Flynn.

At Rio Rosales Elementary School, fifth-graders Rosie Cervantes, Cielo Fabian, Daniel Frisco and Isaiah Laboriante helped Mason E. Dale Armstrong, Lodge 341's acting treasurer, place the time capsule.

At Rio Vista Middle School, ASB President Ariana Reyes and fellow eighth-graders Ivy Nunez and Dulce Vera Armstrong assisted Armstrong. Eighth-grader Anthony Zarate played "The Star Spangled Banner" on electric guitar as a color guard presented the flag.

"It is my pleasure to be here today - when I came in [as new superintendent] in 2006, construction was just beginning," Cotterell said at the 1 p.m. Rio Vista ceremony. "It truly is a celebration for us, because it was such a huge undertaking."

Both schools have been holding classes since August despite the ongoing battle for a pay raise by Rio teachers, some of whom attended the 10 a.m. Rio Rosales ceremony wearing the black T-shirts, reading "Rio teachers deserve respect," that have become a trademark.

Teachers declared negotiations with the district were at an impasse in February, 2007; their 2006-07 contract ran out in June. Meetings with a state-appointed mediator since then haven't produced agreement on a new contract.

Rio teachers say their salaries are comparatively lower than in other districts and want a raise bringing them more in line; district officials say that isn't fiscally realistic. In December the mediator decided to send the impasse to its next stage, called fact finding.

"(The teachers) asked for more than they had previously," Cotterell said after the Rio Vista dedication. "This is not a time economically - we are going to continue to do what we can do but still stay fiscally responsible."

Representatives from the district and the teachers association will now work with a state-appointed neutral party to reach a settlement. If one isn't reached, the panel chair will make a report of its findings and recommendations.

But none of that precludes a strike, which Cotterell and Rio Teachers Association President Rebecca Barbetti both acknowledged is a possibility. The district has been running ads offering substitute teaching jobs for $300 a day in the event of a strike.

"We won't interrupt service to students, we will be prepared for whatever happens so that there is no disruption to their education," Cotterell said.

Barbetti denied that the teachers asked for a bigger raise than they had before, and that the mediator's fact finding would have been triggered regardless, as the two sides were already too far apart to reconcile.

"We're still far apart on language and money issues," said Barbetti, noting that for the cost of substituting the district's 225 teachers one week, the district could give them an automatic 2 percent pay raise.

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