Principals don’t want to talk about it. But everyone admits it happens. Despite the complex teacher placement rules, some principals can and do hire as they wish. They know the system so well — and dislike it so much — that they manipulate it by hiding jobs or tailoring them for specific people.

Principals are supposed to advertise all their openings to give all teachers a shot. But they don’t always do that. If principals have new teachers in mind for jobs, they might wait to advertise the positions until veteran or displaced teachers have all been placed, then spring for the new teachers they really want.

Several current principals refused to talk publicly about the practices, but privately admitted that they’d used them to control hiring.

“There were ways around it,” said Bob Frain, a retired principal who said he hadn’t used the tactics himself. “It’s extremely political. If you knew someone in human resources, they sometimes could hide a position.”

It is impossible to tell how often that happens. But principals have ample room to deploy those tactics: School district data show that nearly twice as many teachers get their jobs during the second, looser round of hiring, when such gambits are possible, than when jobs are first advertised.

Principals may also tailor jobs to eliminate everyone but the candidate they want or simply to dissuade teachers by setting specific expectations for what their teachers should be able to do, such as speak Spanish or use technology. Teachers complain that anyone who hasn’t met a principal is shut out.

“They play with teachers,” said Jeannie Heffley, who teaches at Washington Elementary in Little Italy. “They don’t post the position because they have someone else in mind.”

San Diego Unified has tried to clamp down on the practice, which delays hiring and can put the school district at a disadvantage while other districts snap up teachers. It even called a surprise meeting last year and made principals list every one of their job openings to cut down on shenanigans.

Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union, argues that principals actually have a lot of choice in hiring — sometimes by manipulating the system and sometimes using loopholes the union agreed to.

For instance, magnet schools and those with low test scores can choose any teacher who applies for an advertised job, no matter their seniority. The three schools in a special City Heights partnership get the same freedom under an agreement with the teachers union. Nearly half of San Diego schools fell into one of those categories last year, ostensibly giving them much more leeway to hire who they want.

But the rules are imperfect and sometimes spottily enforced. Principals are often unaware of the freedoms they have, and confusion has worsened with turnover in the Human Resources Department.

Principal Helen Griffith was excited about many of the names on the long list of teachers vying for jobs at her magnet school, Millennial Tech Middle.

But she ruefully called it “a drool list” because “you drool over what you may not be able to have.” Griffith was told she still had to offer jobs to more senior teachers first.

What happened to Griffith undercuts and seems to violate the rules meant to give magnet schools more freedom. Similarly, it was only after Principal Bruce McGirr had to hire a teacher he disliked that he discovered the rules had been skirted for his magnet school. Nobody told him.

“It changes with whoever is in charge. Each person comes in and looks at it and says, ‘Here’s what this means,’” said Deberie Gomez, human resources chief under former Superintendent Alan Bersin. “Principals are often too busy to get into that contract and understand.”

Zombro argues that the larger problem is not the rules themselves, which are violated anyway. Dropping enrollment and turbulent budgets have pushed teachers from school to school late in the summer, often in massive numbers that make it difficult for anyone to get a fair shot at jobs. The rules weren’t written for a shrinking district, she said, but that doesn’t justify principals reneging on the teachers’ contract.

“If the rules need to change, great, let’s change the rules,” she said. “But let’s not do this willy nilly, bending the rules here and not there.”

♦♦♦

More: Why Schools Treat Teachers Like Widgets | The system evolved this way for a reason.

— EMILY ALPERT

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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