Friday, May 11, 2007 | With reports of low morale and the specter of major budget cuts, school principals and managers in the San Diego Unified School District have taken the first formal steps toward creating a new white-collar union to represent their interests.

At the annual meeting of San Diego Unified’s Administrators Association last week, 96 percent of the attendees voted to move forward with a unionization drive. Though the vote was advisory, association leaders say they are now working toward establishing a collective bargaining unit that can represent top school site administrators and department directors at the district’s central office. They plan to soon file a formal petition for representation with the state agency that regulates public-sector unions.

Managers of the District Unite!

  • The Issue: School principals and managers in the San Diego Unified School District have begun the process for forming a new white-collar union to represent their interests.
  • What It Means: Administrators say the move has been driven in part by the frosty relations between staff and the district’s two last superintendents.
  • The Bigger Picture: At the heart of the unionization drive is the district’s long-term financial struggles, fueled by falling enrollment. Without a union or a contract, administrators fear they’ll bear the brunt of the cuts.

The outcome of the plebiscite is a stark reversal for the association, which narrowly rejected unionization in a vote six years ago. Since then, association leaders said, the tenures of Superintendent Carl Cohn and his predecessor, Alan Bersin, have done much to undermine the informal agreement that governs the relationship between the district and its top employees.

“A nonunionized association: The basis for that is trust. When the trust no longer exists, then your employees look for a set of rules that can be supported in court,” said J.M. Tarvin, a long-time La Jolla High School principal and former head of the Administrators Association.

Since 1928, district managers — short of the superintendent and his top deputies — have been members of the Administrators Association and have worked under a memorandum of understanding approved by the school board and written into the district’s official policies, which can be changed unilaterally by the superintendent and the board without input from the association. Under state law, the managers and principals lack the tenure protections afforded to teachers, and, unlike most of the district’s secretarial and blue-collar workers, have not been covered by a legally binding labor contract.

A union, administrators hope, will allow them to codify the current agreement into a full-fledged contract, complete with the procedural protections enjoyed by other unionized employees.

In recent years, falling student enrollment has begun to put pressure on the district’s bottom line, and budget reductions loom in the years ahead. Without representation already enjoyed by other employee groups, administrators worry that they may end up bearing the brunt of the cuts.

“Teachers have a contract, the superintendent has a contract, most high-level administration has a contract. The only people that don’t really have a contract is school administrators,” said Richard Novak, the principal of Marshall Middle School and a member of the Administrators Association board of directors.

The district, for its part, has remained on the sidelines in the unionization push.

“The district really doesn’t have an opinion on it. It’s up to the employees to make that decision,” said Willy Surbrook, San Diego Unified’s head of labor relations. As a district director, Surbrook is a member of the Administrators Association.

If top staff were to succeed in their push to form a new collective bargaining unit, they would join the ranks of other major urban school systems in the state, including Los Angeles Unified School District, which have a formal labor organization to represent top staff. Across the state, though, most districts continue to retain their principals and department heads as at-will employees.

“There’s a thousand school districts in California, and the vast majority do not have unions,” said Julie White, an assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, though White explained that this is now changing. “Just in the last decade, school managers — managers meaning principals and others — have come under much more scrutiny, and the threat of job loss for perceived lack of student performance, if you will. If you don’t get test scores up, you’ll lose your job. And 20 years ago, that wasn’t the case.”

As the San Diego student population has shrunk in the last few years, the district has cut the number of assistant principals and other managerial staff to reflect the falling enrollment numbers. In some cases, they layoffs have not followed the spirit or the letter of the administrators’ informal agreement with the district, association leaders said.

Administrators credit Cohn with bringing a more cooperative style of management to the district since he became superintendent in 2005, compared to the abrasive Bersin, a former U.S. attorney who now serves as the chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. Both were recruited from outside the district; Cohn’s top aides came with him from his days as the head of the Long Beach school system.

However, already reluctant to micromanage the district, Cohn’s administrative reorganization has made him largely inaccessible to most administrators, who must now vet their concerns through a team of area superintendents, principals said.

“It’s not just the superintendent. We are the only large urban school district to not have a union for administrators,” said Thomas Liberto, the principal of Jerabek Elementary School who emphasized that he spoke as a member of the Administrators Association’s executive committee. “I think it’s just a sign of the times, and the changing of the (school) boards, superintendents and relationships. These things that have happened are really the catalyst that have made people go, ‘OK, it’s time.’”

Under state law, the school board may choose to recognize the association as a new bargaining unit. If the board does not, the administrators will need to file a petition before the state’s public-employee labor relations board, and the two sides could haggle over what classes of employees would be members of the new union. Because vice principals also want to be included in the new organization, alongside their bosses, the unionization drive could run up against thorny legal questions that could stretch out the process. Jeannie Steeg, the Administrators Association executive director, estimated that an entire year could elapse before any union is officially recognized.

School board members said they were reluctant to speak about the prospect of sitting down with a new union, explaining that they may have to consider the issue in coming months. However, board member Mitz Lee indicated that she was sympathetic to the concerns brought up by administrators. Lee led the push to oust Bersin and, in recent months, has expressed some frustration over Cohn’s management of the district.

“You don’t want your managers and teachers going in opposite directions,” Lee said.

The administrators are planning another meeting to discuss the issue in coming weeks, though it appears that the unionization drive has wide support among the association’s members. Fewer than a third of the members turned out for last week’s vote — Steeg blames the timing of the meeting — though more than 350 of the roughly 650 administrators represented by the association completed a March survey showing low morale among staff and dissatisfaction with the district’s leadership.

A union, its supporters say, could give administrators a bigger voice in turning the relations with the district around.

“School administrators are really the backbone of the district, they really run things — outside of the teachers, who are the most important,” said Novak, the middle school principal. “I want to make sure that we have rights, too.”

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