Part one of a three-part series.

The teacher didn’t want the job at Gompers Middle School. Principal Vince Riveroll didn’t want to hire someone who didn’t want it. So it floored Riveroll when he walked into a staff meeting years ago and found the man he rejected standing there, shoulder to shoulder with his teachers.

“They assigned me here anyway,” Riveroll recalls the teacher saying.

It wasn’t a glitch. It is the major flaw in how hiring works in San Diego Unified. When the school district places teachers in front of your children, the decision may have little to do with whether they make sense for your school, whether the principal wants them or even whether they themselves want to be there.

Teachers are placed into schools through a complex and sometimes haphazard system driven by seniority and the need to find classrooms for teachers displaced when schools lose students or close. Even when principals do have a choice, their decisions are limited by factors that have nothing to do with whether a teacher is right for their school.

Labor rules mean newer teachers can be pulled from schools they love merely because they have less seniority than other teachers. Sometimes they are assigned to schools they didn’t choose. While ensuring that the teachers still have jobs, the system can force unhappy matches as the hiring pool dwindles, even though human resources staffers try to carefully match teachers and schools.

Some principals resort to gaming the system to handpick the teachers they want, tailoring jobs for specific people or hiding jobs to avoid having to take transferred teachers. Parents and educators have started up charter schools to escape the hiring system entirely.

The problem impacts schools nationwide. Figuring out how to fairly and sensibly put teachers into schools has proved vexing in New York City, for example, which threw out an old system that forced teachers on schools, only to end up with new problems and some of the same old ones.

There are no simple answers.

But in San Diego the question is barely being asked. Seven months of interviews and analysis by revealed a flawed teacher placement system that can undercut schools from making straightforward choices on the fundamental issue of who teaches in their classrooms.

Principals want to freely choose the teachers they become responsible for, but the elaborate and confusing system barred them from doing so in one out of every five teacher assignments last year, according to a survey of more than two dozen principals. And the rules, outlined in the contract between San Diego Unified and the teachers union, aren’t the only problem.

Loopholes that are supposed to give principals more choice are sometimes ignored by the school district, aggravating the problems. Even the teachers union is sometimes unclear about how San Diego Unified interprets and enforces the labor rules, which don’t spell out specific practices.

“It’s a stodgy, bureaucratic, compliance-driven, contract-focused operation,” said former Superintendent Carl Cohn. “Everyone concludes that you really need to blow it up.”

‘It’s a Crapshoot’

Principal Bruce McGirr was glad his school was shedding a grade.

It meant he would be rid of the stubborn, lethargic teacher with the monotone voice, the one who relied on lectures and dry worksheets and had the kids sitting in “cemetery rows.” Children in his class at Grant Elementary had the lowest scores in the school, McGirr said. Parents avoided his class. While other teachers hustled to plan lessons, this one went outside and smoked.

Illustrated explainer by Ashley P. Lewis. Click for larger version.

McGirr would have tried to fire him — a lengthy, painstaking process — if he hadn’t believed his spot was going to disappear anyway. But when another job at Grant opened up, that same teacher nabbed it. McGirr had no choice. The teacher had a right to the job. Under labor rules, teachers whose schools shrink or close are entitled to the first shot at other jobs in San Diego Unified.

“It was like a death sentence for those kids that year,” said McGirr, now retired and serving as director of the principals union.

He tried to fire the teacher. The teacher accused him of ageism. They battled for a year until the teacher retired. “And the tragedy is there is nothing I could have done about it,” McGirr said.

Principals are held responsible for bettering schools. Yet nearly half of the 29 principals surveyed by VOSD said they had to hire someone they didn’t get to choose or actually didn’t want last summer, accounting for roughly 22 percent of the teachers they hired.

It occurred across the city, in poor and wealthy areas alike, as changes in class sizes and a wave of retirements pushed large numbers of teachers from school to school. Scripps Ranch High, located in an affluent neighborhood where test scores are stellar, received three teachers without a choice last summer. Far away in City Heights, Rosa Parks Elementary got five.

And while dozens of teachers vied for a single job at Lafayette Elementary, located in a tranquil stretch of ranch homes in Clairemont, Lafayette got a second teacher with no choice when another one left at the last minute.

“I would have liked to at least have a conversation with the person,” said Principal Jerrilee Fischer-Garza. “I worry that I don’t know who I got.”

By Ashley P. Lewis. Click for larger version.

The problem is nothing new. Five years ago, nearly 40 percent of San Diego Unified principals reported they had to hire a teacher they didn’t want, according to a study by the nonprofit New Teacher Project.

Teachers who are forced on schools aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, many displaced teachers are gems whose last schools were aghast at losing them when enrollment dropped. Fourth grade teacher Angela Gavigan was involuntarily displaced from Central Elementary years ago and later returned. Her principal, who praises her as “brilliant,” wanted her back.

“It was so frustrating,” Gavigan said. “Central wanted me here. I wanted to be here. And I couldn’t be here.”

But principals sometimes pressure poor performers to transfer to other schools because they believe that firing them takes too much time and energy. Those same teachers can be sent to other schools without giving them a choice.

Former principal Annette Brady wondered if that was what happened to her. She was once forced to hire a teacher who was unable to control her classroom. Children were crawling under the desks, squabbling or sleeping. Brady called it a nightmare. Another former principal said she had to hire teachers without a choice almost every other year — sometimes getting good ones, sometimes not.

“It’s a crapshoot,” said Robin Stern, formerly the principal of Field Elementary.

Whether teachers are good or bad, forced hiring makes it harder for schools to get teachers that fit their unique needs. Some schools need teachers who are at ease with a gaggle of parent volunteers in their classrooms. Others, such as Lincoln High, need teachers who are willing to push teens and don’t buy the stale stereotypes that disadvantaged students can’t achieve, said Ana Shapiro, one of its principals.

Graph by Sarah Johnson. Click for larger version.

But Shapiro said Lincoln has sometimes been forced to take teachers who believe the myths and set the bar low.

“They’re not happy to be here,” said Shapiro, who said she had two such teachers last year. “It’s a year of struggling to work with them and as soon as they’re able to, they leave again.”

A Not-So-Heavenly Matchmaking Process

Here is how the hiring system played out at Taft Middle School last summer:

Principal Mike George knew he needed to hire three teachers in May, when schools advertise jobs through a process called post and bid. Under the rules, George could only interview the five qualified candidates with the most seniority. If teachers who were pushed out of other schools by dropping enrollment or closing programs sought the job, he had to offer it to them before anyone else, which could narrow his choice to just a few people — even if dozens applied.

As it happened, George only got one or two applicants for each job and had to choose among them. Even if he hadn’t been happy with his choices, the rules meant he couldn’t wait and recruit more people.

And that was just the first round of hiring. After jobs were advertised, the principal had more jobs to fill because five teachers transferred out of Taft or moved elsewhere. Poorer schools like Taft tend to lose their teachers to wealthier schools, opening up more jobs after the first round of hiring.

So George went into round two of hiring, when the Human Resources Department works like a matchmaker. But it doesn’t always match schools and teachers who love each other.

By Sarah Johnson. Click for larger version.

George said he’s had to hire teachers who bombed their interviews or didn’t know their subjects well. He had to choose them because they were displaced from other schools, giving them an edge for jobs over other teachers that George might have preferred.

Nearly 600 out of the more than 7,000 San Diego Unified teachers transfer every year. The school system finds jobs for displaced teachers and those with seniority first, leaving new teachers and those with year-to-year contracts at the end of the line. Teachers can’t refuse jobs and principals have been nudged to take teachers they didn’t pick. Unhappy marriages are more likely as the teaching pool thins in late summer.

“It doesn’t do kids any good if we’re forcing someone to be where they don’t want to be,” said Human Resources Officer Tim Asfazadour. They try to make everyone happy. “But if it gets down to crunch time, we have the right to assign them where we need them.”

Michelle Elizondo volunteered to leave Horton Elementary to be closer to her Serra Mesa home. She sought out some of the advertised jobs in May, but didn’t get one. So when San Diego Unified came calling as her matchmaker later in the summer, she opted to go to Rosa Parks for its reputation and location. She never interviewed with Principal Carolanne Buguey, who was assigned several teachers without a choice.

“You just have to make the best of it because that’s the way it is,” Buguey said. Getting a job without an interview also left Elizondo a little uncomfortable, although she’s happy to be at Rosa Parks and gets along with her principal. “You feel like you have to prove yourself,” she said.

Schools can also be forced to shed teachers they want to keep, another way in which the rules control staffing. When enrollment falls, schools must shed their least senior teachers unless others volunteer. To avert losing them, principals sometimes prod other, less desired teachers to volunteer themselves.

The blind rules have sparked touchy debates between parents who hate seeing beloved young teachers pushed aside and parents who believe the rules are needed to protect teachers. Some principals and parents say schools need the freedom to choose their teachers as they wish, based on their subjective merits. Others fear anything else would be unfair and prone to favoritism.

“We all feel it, but you can’t really say, ‘Get rid of the wormy apples,’” said Doyle Elementary parent Catherine Helmuth. “Seniority is almost the only fair way to do this.”

The labor rules give an edge to senior teachers who stick with the system, rewarding them for their time, but can be aggravating for new and temporary teachers left with fewer choices.

Andrea Pino-Vlassis is a teacher on a year-to-year contract who worked at four different schools in the last four years, each time losing her job to teachers with more rights who wanted her spot. Principals usually can’t choose teachers on finite contracts over teachers with permanent contracts.

“I wish I could go back to the same schools. I don’t care which one,” Pino-Vlassis said.

>But there is no easy way to fix it. “This has been talked about for the 37 years I was in the district,” former human resources chief Sam Wong said. “And there’s been no solution.”


Read on for other angles to this story:

1. Charters: Seceding from the System | How the system spurred some schools to leave the school district.

2. Loopholes and Gaming the System | Principals play the system. The district violates its own rules.

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

COMING MONDAY: Even if schools are freed from a flawed and restrictive hiring system, they still have to create a culture that lures and keeps teachers. It can be difficult, but the good news is it’s been done.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

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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