Elementary school teachers in National City have given the green light for their union to go on strike if negotiations with the National School District continue to stall. The step does not mean teachers will go on strike but it means the union is now free to call one if it wants to.

If that happens, the tiny district of roughly 5,800 elementary-schoolers would be the first school system in the county strike since this round of budget cuts have pressed schools. Budget cuts have ramped up tensions between teachers unions, superintendents and school boards all over the county, but National would be the only local district where those tensions bubbled over.

National School District declared impasse with its union in March. One of the next steps that school districts take after that is bringing in a fact-finding panel with representatives from both sides, which studies the facts and sets forth its own recommendations. But that didn’t settle the debate.

After the two sides were unable to agree, the National school board six furlough days this year, larger class sizes, new rules for transferring teachers and a new school calendar that aligns with Sweetwater middle and high schools.

School district officials say it was needed to close a $3 million deficit — about 10 percent of its day-to-day operating budget. Teachers picketed the school district offices in October over the dispute, the Union-Tribune reported. The two sides met last Monday and failed to reach agreement yet again.

Superintendent Chris Oram said the sticking points with the union are chiefly the number of furlough days and how long the new contract will run. The school district wants to lock in a longer agreement and avoid coming back to the table soon to bargain again, while the union wants a shorter one.

Teachers voted on Thursday afternoon to allow union leaders to call a strike if the two sides can’t patch together an agreement, said Bill Guy, a regional spokesman for the California Teachers Association. So far I haven’t been able to reach the president of the National teachers union, who is out of the office.

Schools are out now, so any strike wouldn’t happen until January at the earliest. Keep it on your list of education news to watch for in 2011.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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