A month ago, more than 12,000 employees of the Orange County School Public Schools rallied in a giddy display of support for the new superintendent, Dennis Smith. Waving banners, the workers appeared ready to follow their new leader, no matter the cost. Some observers had expressed skepticism about the school district successfully pulling off such a large rally, supposedly the first ever to bring together so many of its employees. "But Smith believed it was essential that all OCPS employees come together as a team," explained the story about the gathering in the latest issue of the Orange Peal, the district's newsletter. It's safe to say that the period of unquestioning admiration is over. School negotiators have begun contract talks with representatives of the Orange Educational Support Personnel Association. The union, which represents more than 8,000 bus drivers, cafeteria workers, clerical workers and maintenance workers, has delayed discussing money issues until it sees a pay equity study that was to have been completed by consultants. Instead, the sessions have involved non-money issues. "It's going real slow," said Steve Anderson, union president. The workers believe the study will show they are underpaid. In preparing for the negotiations, the union also picked up a copy of the recent report by the nonpartisan group CountyWatch, which encouraged the school board to open up its meetings and hire staff, rather than consultants. With no legal right to strike, the union eventually must relent to the district's will. Still this is Smith's first opportunity to show where he stands on labor issues, whether he is willing to bank on his work force or will continue to favor consultants. After years of tight-fisted downsizing, workers are "hoping the new superintendent has got a new outlook," said another union official who requested anonymity. Bargaining resumes Sept. 4.