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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008 | School principals and managers in San Diego Unified meant to reinforce their rights when they banded together this summer to form a union. They felt the school district had repeatedly trampled its agreements with their professional association by hiring outsiders or underlings while homegrown principals were demoted, and wanted the ability to turn to a state agency when disputes arose.

But as the school district and the fledgling union grapple over which workers fall under its umbrella, Superintendent Terry Grier has asserted that the unionized principals are starting from scratch. They are not guaranteed the rights in their existing agreement, Grier has written, and could face months of grueling negotiations only to eke out a contract on “completely new” and possibly dimmer terms as budgets take a pummeling from the state.

Grier’s statement has worried principals who expected to gain protections by unionizing. Their attorney has argued that San Diego Unified does not get a clean slate when crafting an employment contract. But the alignment of grimmer budgets and a tenacious new superintendent could mean just that, said school board member John de Beck.

“I think they got a better deal with [an agreement] than they will get as a union,” de Beck said.

Administrators voted this summer to transform themselves from a professional group to a union that formally bargains with San Diego Unified. It was the culmination of years of discussion that spanned three different superintendents: the assertive and sometimes divisive Alan Bersin, the calming but temporary Carl Cohn, and now Grier.

It is part of a nationwide trend that spans from New York City to Los Angeles, where principals and directors have unionized largely to counterbalance the growing demands they face under No Child Left Behind. Schools face penalties if their test scores fall short of the rising bar set by states, and principals are held responsible for making those gains, sometimes over the objection that factors beyond their control are driving test scores. Unions are common among teachers and school workers such as secretaries, bus drivers and custodians, but have cropped up more recently among principals and directors who feel uneasy with less formal agreements with their supervisors.

Unionizing is a seismic shift for San Diego Unified principals, who are typically loath to butt heads with their supervisors. Many are queasy about using the word “union.” For decades principals and administrators in San Diego Unified have joined forces in a professional group that advocates for their interests and advises them on disputes with their supervisors and employees. It hashed out an eight-page agreement with the school district outlining workplace issues such as sick leave, evaluations and retirement benefits.

The group had less power than a union, and its agreement lacked the same force as a contract that is formally bargained with the school district, though the Administrators Association could — and did — take the school district to court when it believed its agreement was violated.

But while the teachers union can turn to a statewide agency for redress if it believes the school district failed to properly consult it on workplace changes, the Administrators Association had no such option because it was merely a professional association, not a union. Its executive director, Jeannie Steeg, said the agreement has been repeatedly ignored under both Bersin and Cohn, and believes that unionizing will strengthen their protections. After Grier insisted on a blank slate, however, Steeg sounds less sure that their union contract will outweigh their current agreement.

“We’re hoping that we at least get everything that we presently have,” Steeg said.

Steeg’s group is now dickering with San Diego Unified over which workers are included in the union and which aren’t. They agree that principals are included, but San Diego Unified does not want to include directors who coordinate programs across the school district, such as mathematics, classes for the gifted and talented, or visual and performing arts, Steeg said.

San Diego Unified labor relations director Willy Surbrook said the disputed directors are managers who are legally barred from joining unions, but Steeg points to the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, a principals’ union that includes several departmental directors.

Excluding the directors is “absolutely inconsistent” with the policies of other administrators’ unions across the United States, said said Jill Levy, president of the American Federation of School Administrators.

The dispute has stalled the process of hashing out a contract with San Diego Unified, delaying negotiations until a judge decides whether those employees are included in the union. Meanwhile Grier has twice e-mailed principals and directors to counter statements made by the Administrators Association. Chief among the points Grier raises is that the new contract will not necessarily exceed or even equal their existing agreement.

The old agreement is irrelevant at the bargaining table, Grier wrote in a July e-mail to administrators. “Instead, bargaining ‘begins from scratch’ and each side is free to submit proposals that are below, above, or equal to current levels of benefits and protections.”

He has also stressed that unionizing will impose dues or fees on principals, may not be done by secret ballot, and does not guarantee any new concessions from the school district. Grier promised them “a fair open and democratic system with or without a union.” Principals are puzzled by the “without” because the union is already a done deal.

“It’s like saying, ‘Can the Carolina Panthers please not throw that last touchdown pass that caused the San Diego Chargers to lose?’” said Irvine attorney Bill Shaeffer, who represents the Administrators Association. “The game is over.”

The superintendent has countered that many principals didn’t understand what they were doing when they voted to unionize. Even after the fact, he said, principals need the details.

“This is not an effort to make sure they’re not moving forward,” Grier said. “You can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube. This is a matter of clear communications. If a group sends something out to our employees, we want it to be accurate.”

Steeg has reason to be protective of the principals’ existing agreement. One of its key provisions says San Diego Unified must make efforts to rehire displaced principals before promoting teachers or hiring outsiders from other school systems. It is a stricter standard than is found under state law, said de Beck, who believes the school district should be able to dismiss principals at will.

And while Steeg and her members want to beef up the agreement, it is not toothless. When former superintendent Bersin fired more than a dozen principals and assistant principals, the Administrators Association mobilized, sued the school district for failing to follow “due process,” and won on the basis of their agreement.

“We got ourselves in trouble,” de Beck said.

That same rule could stoke tensions between principals and the vice principals they oversee. Forcing principals to give priority to vice principals who have been demoted at other schools could hamstring them from choosing an effective team, said board member Shelia Jackson. It is a question that parallels concerns about teacher hiring, which is limited by seniority. Most principals choose their teachers from a limited pool of the most veteran teachers who apply.

“If the principal is not allowed to select the team they want,” Jackson asked, “how can we hold them accountable” for the success or failure of their school?

There is no national standard on whether unionized principals start with their agreements or with a blank slate, Levy said. Peeling back the rights that principals have enjoyed in San Diego Unified “is a possibility” with a new contract, said Michael O’Sullivan, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. “But it would be a botched job of negotiating.”

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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