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Ever since Cindy Marten stepped into the spotlight as San Diego Unified superintendent, she’s been trailed by the whispers: Sure, she knows how to teach, but how will she handle herself in the trenches of labor negotiations?

If the initial contract proposal the district sent to the teachers union this week is any indication, Marten is ready for a fight.

“And,” the union promises, “it’s going to be a fight.”

At issue is the next contract between San Diego Unified and San Diego Education Association – San Diego’s teachers union – which will cover teachers, nurses, counselors and other staff members.

The current contract ends June 30 but Bill Freeman, SDEA president, says they’ll be at the table as long as it takes to strike an agreement.

The district sent the union its proposal Tuesday. It’s light on details, but the district wants to write clearer job descriptions for teachers and have more room to negotiate benefits, among other things.

The part that may have the biggest impact, however, might also be biggest sticking point: rebooting its system for evaluating teachers.

“That was the biggest disappointment for me,” said Freeman. “Any time you want to implement a system that’s top-down, that’s the quickest way to make something fail.”

Freeman said he was surprised by the sudden focus on teacher evaluations, and that the district has never indicated the current system was problematic.

But Lisa Berlanga, executive director of parent advocacy group UpforEd, said that changes are a long time coming. “I don’t think it’s changed in more than 20 years,” she said. “We’re very pleased to see this.”

The district hasn’t said what the new evaluations would look like, but it wants to include feedback from students and parents.

Outgoing Trustee Scott Barnett said that the idea is to include more stakeholders in the conversation – not to hammer on teachers or make their jobs harder.

“Our most important constituents are the kids, right? We say that. So let’s find a way to get them and their representatives – their parents – into the process,” Barnett said.

For years, the district shied away from instituting a more comprehensive evaluation system.

While other districts like Houston or Los Angeles were embracing “value-added metrics,” a way of gauging teachers’ effectiveness by looking at improvements in students’ test scores, San Diego Unified went another direction.

Instead, principals visit classrooms once every year or two to see how teachers are leading class. Afterward, principals complete an evaluation form in which they rated the performance.

Of course, many principals were probably more hands-on than that, but the contract requirements were pretty lax. So lax, in fact, that in some cases teachers can fill out their own reviews – without being observed at all.

This past summer, four teachers at Lincoln High told VOSD that although they were due for a classroom visit, a principal never came. Instead, they said they received a “satisfactory” review. All they had to do was sign on the line.

While that may not be what the district considers best practice, this literal hands-off approach jibed with contract rules for what to do if a principal doesn’t show. But even if no policies were broken, this part stands out: four teachers missed a shot at getting feedback for how they were doing.

The district’s proposal is just the opening act of what’s sure to be a dramatic story. But Marten is turning a few heads with her willingness to take the lead early on.

Barnett said that this is the first time in his experience on the school board that San Diego Unified is putting kids first while still keeping an eye on the bottom line.

“There’s a new sheriff in town and her name is Cindy Marten,” he said.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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