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Thursday, July 17, 2008 | Educators were intrigued in April when San Diego Unified floated the idea of a parcel tax, which would charge property owners in the school district a fixed yearly fee. Proponents said it could net nearly $30 million for schools.

It was a novel proposal to insulate schools from the ebb and flow of state budgets. Unlike the facilities bond San Diego Unified is simultaneously planning, which can only pay for buildings and renovations, the parcel tax could pump more funding into teacher salaries. And it was a brave idea in San Diego County, which has never passed a school parcel tax.

But three months later the idea has fizzled, a casualty of rushed timing and the bitter gulf between the teachers union and the school district that resulted from hundreds of layoffs. Staffers abandoned the proposal after school board members concluded that a successful tax would require painstaking negotiations with the union, and gave up hopes of placing it on the November ballot.

Its demise is one symptom of the union stalemate that has become a stumbling block for Superintendent Terry Grier. The teachers union walked out of a discussion on budget cuts along with all San Diego Unified’s employee unions. It pulled away from planning a facilities bond, stating that reversing the layoffs is their overwhelming priority. Thus far, its absence has cost the facilities bond a vital, vocal advocate.

Its president, Camille Zombro, has accused Grier of lying and “bargaining with layoffs” — a shift from the warmer relationship the union enjoyed with former superintendent Carl Cohn after a bitter split with his predecessor, Alan Bersin. That relationship has so soured that school board members scuttled the parcel tax outright when they learned that the union would be crucial to its success.

“It’s a shame. Unless there’s some kind of breakthrough, I don’t see it happening,” said school board President Katherine Nakamura.

The parcel tax was already considered a long shot. Such taxes have rarely succeeded in Southern California: They require a steep two-thirds vote to pass and are considered unfair because all property owners pay the same fee per parcel, instead of paying more or less depending on property value.

And with a $2.1 billion facilities bond slated for the November ballot, advisors warned San Diego Unified that floating a parcel tax as well could endanger both proposals, by overwhelming voters with too many new taxes. Worried by that scenario, school board member Mitz Lee hinted that she would withhold her vote for the bond if the parcel tax proceeded.

But the alienation of the teachers union was the death knell for the parcel tax, which was still kicking until San Diego Unified officials realized that a lengthy negotiation with the union would be key to its success. In June, the school district spent $971 to send Superintendent Terry Grier and school board members John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura to visit San Francisco Unified and discuss how the Northern California school district passed a parcel tax that boosted salaries for teachers, school psychologists and nurses.

There, they learned that San Francisco Unified spent more than a year negotiating an agreement with its teachers union on what the parcel tax would provide. San Francisco struck a deal: The school district would hike teacher pay, and educators would agree to controversial reforms, including bonuses for teachers working in hard-to-staff schools or subjects that suffer staffing shortages. Once the deal was struck, the teachers union joined the school district to wage a forceful campaign.

“They built an enormous amount of trust between the district and the union,” said Richard Barrera, a candidate for school board who also visited San Francisco. “Right now there isn’t anything near that in San Diego. … Even if the district had rescinded all the layoffs, I’m not sure that we have that foundation of trust.”

The last superintendent, Carl Cohn, “achieved a cease-fire” between the union and the district, Barrera said. “Now this era of conflict is resurfacing. It just blocks progress.”

Achieving the necessary give-and-take to craft a parcel tax in San Diego by November seemed so improbable that Nakamura and de Beck have dropped immediate plans for the tax and didn’t try to formally propose it to the union. Nakamura said the union wouldn’t support a parcel tax at this time; Zombro said she had never been asked, but added that the San Francisco agreement was “a far cry from something our members would adopt anytime soon.”

“They haven’t even approached us,” she said. “They’re either not serious about this, or they’re not ready for it.”

As California legislators earlier this year projected massive cuts to public schools, San Diego Unified initially planned to lay off nearly 1,000 educators and hundreds more employees in other unions. The number of layoffs was reduced as legislators redirected cuts away from schools, whittling down the budget shortfall the school district faced.

Ultimately, the school board voted to lay off roughly 200 educators and hundreds more employees from other unions. It has pledged to rehire as many teachers as financially possible in the coming months. But the union has decried all layoffs as unnecessary, pushing the district to reduce its emergency reserve instead.

Layoffs inflamed the tensions between Grier and the teachers union, but the problems have gone beyond the budget crisis to the basic question of how the two will communicate. The rift was evident when Zombro and Grier disagreed in a prominent story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, about whether the union turned down a deal to protect schools such as Jackson Elementary that would be disproportionately affected by teacher layoffs; a following editorial denounced the union for the problem. Zombro said no such deal was offered.

Distrustful of Grier, Zombro now insists on written agreements and refuses to meet with him casually outside of the bargaining table, calling such meetings “backroom deals.” Grier could not be reached for comment on this issue Wednesday.

“Since Grier arrived we’ve been lied to, marginalized and held out of vital discussions,” Zombro wrote in an e-mail, citing Grier’s plans to reduce class sizes at a selected group of schools as an example. Zombro said she learned about the plan from the media. “We have not been asked to sit as equals, so we’ve chosen not to sit at those tables.”

One attempt by Grier to broach that barrier backfired in a June incident that Grier described as a misunderstanding and Zombro called “bargaining with layoffs.” The week before the school board finalized roughly 200 teacher layoffs, the superintendent relayed a message to Zombro by telephoning Barrera, a labor organizer — a message that Barrera said he understood to mean that money was available to reverse all teacher layoffs if the teachers underwent special training.

Furious teachers protested that their jobs shouldn’t be held hostage to a classroom reform, repeatedly mentioning the supposed deal at a June board meeting. The superintendent said Barrera misunderstood their discussion and that no deal was offered. Barrera was flustered by his denial and Zombro called Grier “less than truthful.” Reflecting on the snafu after the meeting, Grier said he had learned not to use an emissary.

“I apologized to Richard for any misunderstanding,” he said in a June interview. “It’s not my intent — nor did I say to folks — that there are conditions on bringing teachers back.”

As the parcel tax disappears from discussions, de Beck lamented that San Diego Unified will remain vulnerable when state budgets dive. And that includes teachers who won’t enjoy the fruits of a parcel tax, he said.

“In the long haul they may be shooting themselves in the foot,” de Beck said. “They’ll scream bloody murder when they look at San Francisco’s pay scale.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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