A San Diego native with 11 years’ experience serving schoolchildren — literally — has replaced bus driver Larry Isom as president of the union that represents blue-collar workers in San Diego Unified schools.

Ethel M. Larkins, a veteran of the schools’ food service department, took the spot January 1. She will serve a two-year term, representing workers such as custodians, landscapers, drivers, cooks and cafeteria workers in San Diego Unified. During her 11 years in San Diego Unified, she started as a food service worker and rose to the job of senior cook. She also worked in the pastry department.

As a union member, she trained as a job steward, attended organizing trainings, went to three statewide union conferences and helped campaign for current school board members Shelia Jackson, Luis Acle and Mitz Lee.

The local chapter of the California School Employees Association is still negotiating with the district. The discussions have stretched longer than those with other unions, such as the teachers’ union, which agreed to a contract in the fall, and the school police officers’ union, which has set a tentative agreement.

Since the departure of former superintendent Alan Bersin, who cut custodial staff significantly, the union has restored roughly 100 landscaping jobs and kept custodians at work during breaks, allowing the workers to do deep-cleaning projects impossible while kids are at school, Larkins said.

Now, Larkins is worried by the slimming state budget.

“It’s definitely going to affect the Cost of Living Adjustment next year,” she said, referring to the pay boosts given to keep pace with the cost of living. “…We’re always the lowest people on the totem pole, when cuts are made.”


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