Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008 | Weeks before summer break, parent Christie Duguid discovered that La Jolla Elementary School would lose its principal, Donna Tripi. Joined by a handful of parents, she penned letters to Tripi’s supervisors, pleading to keep her.

Lonely at the Top

  • The Issue: School administrators will vote this month on whether to form a collective bargaining unit to protect the interests of principals and other school managers — but they’re hesitant to call it a union.
  • What It Means: Administrators say California law and the district’s own policies provide little protection for managers, hired and fired at will.
  • The Bigger Picture: Principals, in particular, are anxious in the face of increased pressures: to improve test scores under No Child Left Behind, and to survive in lean budget years, made leaner by falling enrollment.

“Ninety-eight percent of our parents aren’t just pleased — they’re very, very happy with Donna,” said Duguid, now the president of the La Jolla Elementary Parent Teacher Association. “We couldn’t understand it. It seemed unfounded.”

Parents piped up, and Tripi kept her job. Other principals were less fortunate. Unlike teachers, schools’ top employees — principals and managers — lack contracts, and work at-will. Their only protection is a memorandum of understanding that lays out guidelines for employee staples such as pay and vacations, but packs less punch than the union contracts that protect other employees.

“It’s a gentleman’s agreement,” said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the local Administrators Association, a professional organization. Her group includes principals, police supervisors, custodial managers and other administrators working in San Diego Unified schools. “And it’s up to the school board, if they choose to honor it.”

“We’re the only group that’s flying without a net,” said president-elect Bruce McGirr.

The apparent flimsiness of the administrators’ MOU worries some administrators, who are pushing for contracts and collective bargaining with the school district. Collective bargaining means that employees band together, and negotiate their benefits and work rules with their employer. Once employees are formally organized, their negotiations are heavily regulated by the state.

Steeg shies away from the word “union.” McGirr calls it “the U-word.” But if administrators vote for collective bargaining this month, the Administrators Association will begin to look much like one.

It’s a tricky step for principals and managers, many of whom have clashed with teachers’ unions in the past. They see themselves as professionals, McGirr said, not agitators. Ten months ago, administrators took a step toward collective bargaining, voting to research the topic.

This month, employees are voting for action, said Betsy Cook, the group’s current president. “This vote means, ‘OK — are we going to, or aren’t we going to?’”

Principals have mulled organizing for years, alarmed by scattered violations of the MOU, and the lack of other legal protections. Under California’s education code, managers have few rights, said Irvine attorney Bill Shaeffer.

“Can you demote a principal because they have green hair?” Shaeffer asked. “Well, yeah. They don’t have to give any reason at all.”

Years ago, Shaeffer represented 15 San Diego principals and vice principals demoted by then-Superintendent Alan Bersin. Shaeffer won his case based on the district’s long-standing MOU, not the Education Code. Still, McGirr worries that their MOU has limited force. School boards enter into the agreements voluntarily, and are not required to negotiate. Collective bargaining also opens up more options to wronged employees, including submitting a grievance or enlisting the help of the California Public Employment Relations Board. Currently, San Diego’s administrators can only contest violations in court.

“We have to threaten litigation after the harm is done,” McGirr said.

Controversial transfers and demotions have ramped up interest in an administrators’ contract. Far south of La Jolla in Barrio Logan, another principal was transferred, aggravating some parents and peers who thought the process unfair. Anna Cazares lost her job at Chavez Elementary, and was moved to Cabrillo Elementary. The transfer followed a series of disputes with Area Superintendent Delfino Aleman over issues ranging from the placement of a kindergarten student to whether to solicit student volunteers.

Karen Mashoof, a former counselor at Chavez, switched schools after Cazares left. Parent complaints against Cazares were “totally blown out of proportion,” she complained, and Cazares was “a target.”

“I can confidently talk … about everything that’s happened, because I know I’m protected under my union,” Mashoof said. “If the administrators had a strong union like we do, their supervisors couldn’t get away with all that.”

Aleman could not be reached Monday for comment.

Chavez vice principal Karen Toyohara was also demoted. Toyohara said she was told the school’s enrollment had dropped, eliminating her position. Under the MOU, San Diego Unified is supposed to reassign administrators whose jobs are cut to vacant jobs comparable to their own. Instead, Toyohara was sent back to the classroom.

“Nobody honored our MOU,” Toyohara said. “There were a number of vice principal slots that were open. It was disregarded. Instead, they took brand-new people out of the classroom, and put them into those positions.”

Collective bargaining contracts for school administrators have flourished across the state, starting in San Francisco in the 1970s. Oakland and Los Angeles later followed suit. Among large school districts, San Diego Unified is one of the last to organize its administrators, Steeg said. Dwindling budgets and the mounting demands of No Child Left Behind put principals “in the hot seat,” said principal James Dierke, president of the United Administrators of San Francisco.

“When you want to change schools, you move administrators,” Dierke said. “That’s not really fair to us. … Now nobody wants to be an administrator.” If a school fails, he said, “it’s considered to be the principal’s fault.”

In San Diego, additional pressures weigh on administrators. Over several years, as enrollment dropped and budgets shrank, managers were downsized. Principals also worry that after recently-retired Superintendent Carl Cohn divvied the district into five regions, each with its own area superintendent, expectations for principals became wildly inconsistent, depending on each area superintendent’s approach.

“The MOU was always effective for me personally,” Cook said. “… But I hear from colleagues that they’ve had problems with that, that their area superintendents may not be honoring the MOU.”

If administrators vote to bond together at their Jan. 29 meeting, the issue will likely go to the school board. If the school board rejects the new bargaining unit, the administrators can turn to the state Public Employment Relations Board.

As the meeting nears, questions abound for the administrators: If they bond together, which kinds of managers will be included? Who will bargain together for salaries? Cook is unsure that collective bargaining is the best — or only — solution.

“My concerns … it’s mostly fear of the unknown, to be perfectly honest,” Cook said. “It’s a case of the devil you know, versus the devil you don’t.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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