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Last year, when leaders of the Sweetwater Union High School District filled three high-ranking positions, they didn’t have to look far to find the right candidates: All three had worked for neighboring San Diego Unified.
In each case, they had help from Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified board member who at the time also served as head of the local Labor Council.
Barrera confirmed that he made phone calls on behalf of all three employees before they were hired.
The Sweetwater school district is just now beginning to surface from controversy related to a corruption probe that ousted four of five school board members in 2014.
Last year, at least one parent saw the hiring spree as more of the same behavior that caused the initial problems: “(This) sends the message that the environment of cronyism and nepotism has not changed in Sweetwater,” the Chula Vista parent told trustees.
Barrera said there was nothing untoward about the calls he made. He saw the openings in Sweetwater as a good opportunity for employees he has worked with and knows well.
That Barrera has sway in a district he doesn’t even work in doesn’t just demonstrate the power he’s amassed since joining the San Diego Unified board and rising through the labor ranks. It also highlights how intertwined those two roles can be: Barrera knew the employees from his work with the district, but says he acted on their behalf in his capacity as a labor leader.
A year before he made the calls, Barrera and his labor colleagues were already working to reshape the Sweetwater district’s board.
With all five seats open, he explained, the Labor Council saw an opportunity to rebuild the board with members who support labor’s agenda. They’ve been successful. Four out of five candidates endorsed by the Labor Council were voted in, including Nick Segura, business manager of the local electrical workers union.
Shortly after getting elected to San Diego Unified’s board in late 2008, Barrera helped negotiate an agreement that generally requires contractors to hire from union halls for any large bond-funded construction project. He also helped select union leaders to serve on an independent oversight committee that watches the spending.
He recruited union-backed school board members, including Marne Foster, who went on to win. In 2013, he was the first to suggest elementary school principal Cindy Marten would be the ideal superintendent.
For two and a half years, Barrera served as secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, a sort of union of unions representing the political interests of 135 unions.
During that time, he pledged to both the school district and Labor Council that his first loyalties were to them, respectively. But to Barrera, organized labor and the school district do not have different agendas. He believes the labor movement is a comprehensive solution to the problems that face the district – and society.
And he has had major impact across San Diego implementing that vision.
Scott Barnett, Barrera’s former colleague on the school board, calls Barrera “one of the most influential and least known politicians in San Diego County.”
Barrera doesn’t mind being called a politician. Politics is about organizing people around a vision. Any politician without one is wasting space.
Barrera’s is a deeply held belief that living wages and quality education are direct and vital routes to economic justice. He considers the rise of inequality directly proportional to the decline in union membership.
“It’s not a coincidence,” he said.
These are the beliefs that led him from El Cajon, where he grew up, to graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They guided him to Little Rock, Ark., where he worked to revitalize a neighborhood near the governor’s mansion.
Barrera remembers Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, stopping by the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new affordable apartment complex he had worked to open.
“I drive by this place every day and I always said someone should do something about it. Well, you’ve all gone out and done something about it,” Barrera recounts Clinton saying.
In 2006, after Barrera returned to San Diego, he made a run for county supervisor against longtime incumbent Ron Roberts. Barrera ran that race on a promise that he, the son of a Colombian immigrant, was better suited to address poverty and protect social services than his Republican opponent.
It wasn’t enough. Roberts walked away from the race with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
In 2008, Barrera stepped onto the school board unopposed in the election and never left. He’s running for his third term, also unopposed.
Barnett speaks with frustration and awe at the number of times Barrera’s vision carried the day. The two disagreed plenty, most often when it came to the budget. Barnett, for instance, holds Barrera primarily responsible for promising across-the-board salary increases to teachers, sending the district deeper into the red.
Yet Barnett is effusive when describing Barrera: “He truly is the philosophical leader in the school district, and has been since his election. He has been and still is the most powerful and most influential board member on everything from the budget to policies, labor issues and reform issues,” Barnett said.
Those who have worked with Barrera attribute to him charming, near mythical qualities: He never carries a pencil because he remembers everything. If he ever took a note, it might be one word on a scrap of paper. One time he walked into a government agency on a whim and walked out with thousands of free bus passes for poor students. He’s not into self-promotion and doesn’t even carry business cards. Everyone, even people who hate his politics, likes him.
Bernie Rhinerson, the district’s former chief of staff who retired in 2013, attributes Barrera’s outsize influence to his diplomatic touch and respectful demeanor – and also to timing. Barrera stepped onto the board in 2008 at the same time as John Lee Evans. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent, Terry Grier, left for Texas.
A sort of leadership vacuum occurred, Rhinerson said, and together Barrera and Evans grew close with the next superintendent, Bill Kowba, in 2010. Over the next three years, Barrera and Evans met privately with Kowba and an inside circle of senior administrators to make budget decisions and chart a course for the district.
Kowba said the pair became well-researched, but that describing Barrera as a power broker was a “bit of a stretch.” He said his influence is partially a natural outcome of staying on the board for eight years.
Evans says he and Barrera stepped in at a time of turmoil and took the reins together: “We saw an incoherent sitting school board that had no clear direction before we were elected.”
The alliance between Barrera and Evans meant Barrera could always count on at least one other vote on the five-person board, said Barnett.
“You only need one more to do whatever you want,” he said. “Richard’s never had any trouble getting a third vote.”
And that was while Barnett – who often went his own way – was on the board. Since he left, two seats on the school board have gone to candidates who were supported by the teacher’s union – and the Labor Council, while under Barrera’s leadership.
The question that has dogged Barrera since 2013 is the degree to which he can serve two masters.
That year, Lorena Gonzalez, then secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council, moved up to the state Assembly, leaving an opening. Barrera was appointed to the top job.
His executive board would include the president of San Diego’s teacher’s union, a union leader representing the district’s classified staff and other union chiefs contracted with the district.
Questions rose immediately: Was the arrangement proper?
On its surface it was a blunt conflict. As a school board member, he would be sitting across the table from teachers and other employees negotiating for higher wages and better benefits. It is their job to push for those as hard as they can.
Yet it might not be in the school district’s interest to give large, across-the-board salary increases or benefit enhancements. School board trustees are obligated to protect the students’ (and taxpayers’) interests. Barrera would have to represent that perspective.
On the other hand, he was bound to the Labor Council and its members, including the educators and classified employees.
Neglecting his members’ best interests could be grounds for discipline or dismissal, according to the group’s bylaws.
In other words, any Labor Council officer, union group or delegate could file charges against Barrera at any time for breaking rank. His executive board would decide whether his conduct merited a hearing and subsequent suspension or removal. If appealed, only then would the larger cohort of council delegates weigh in on the fate of his employment, meaning Barrera needed to toe the union line or risk his job.
Barrera said that even though both sides asked him to pledge loyalty, it’s the same situation facing any school board member who holds another job.
“In any job, the expectation is that you’re going to be loyal to that organization’s interests first,” he said. “I think anyone can understand that.”
Barrera also points out that his council salary was not tied to union membership. That is, he received no bonus for bringing in new members.
School district staff and trustees wanted clarity. Outside legal experts provided the district with an opinion that stated Barrera could hold both jobs without conflict. They did, however, note particular concern with the dozens of unions with district contracts.
“It is our recommendation that he consider recusing himself from decisions involving trades union parties to the (project labor agreement),” and that he exercise caution when voting on matters related to the teachers or classified employees unions, wrote attorney Mark Bresee.
The opinion didn’t address the two pledges Barrera took, or the fact that some of his votes – those to increase or decrease the number of district teachers or support staff – would impact the Labor Council’s revenues, since dues are paid based on worker counts.
Barrera led the council from May 2013 until December 2015 and made $110,000 a year. Despite the attorney’s caution, he did not sit out a single labor vote or discussion. District officials said they never advised him to.
He did help negotiate labor deals and voted on union contracts, approving raises, restoring furlough days and approving early retirement deals even when the district didn’t find enough interested retirees it said it needed to save money.
Barrera says that he never had to recuse himself because no unions with which he was negotiating ever paid him. Rather, he was paid by the larger umbrella council, though it subsists mostly on their dues.
Barrera is unabashed about his commitment to labor. Supporting teachers’ rights is supporting kids.
“People might say, ‘You’re prioritizing the interests of teachers above schools.’ Well, you take two steps back from that statement and ask the public, ‘Does that make any sense to you? That the interest of teachers are not the interests of schools?’” he said.
Regardless, the question of competing allegiances is now less timely. In December, Barrera – whose term on the Labor Council wasn’t up until April – resigned abruptly and moved over to the local United Food and Commercial Workers, where he will take over as secretary-treasurer.
Barrera said he changed jobs simply because the position was a better fit for him. It’s a smaller and lower-profile role than he previously held. But Barrera said he prefers to organize workers, which he’ll be doing more of for UFCW.
‘More Than a Little Incestuous’
Barrera had already done a lot to further union interests years before taking the Labor Council post.
Almost immediately after getting elected to the school board in late 2008, Barrera and his colleagues began closed-door talks to negotiate a labor agreement that would limit who could bid for billions of dollars in school construction work to come from the newly passed Proposition S bond measure.
The agreement would mandate decent pay and benefits for construction workers, and with few exceptions, contractors would need to be hired through labor halls.
The union pact was approved in July 2009, less than a year after Barrera’s election.
Barrera said the so-called project labor agreement was a priority of his from the start and that he played a leadership role in getting it through. Because one goal of the agreement was to hire workers from impoverished San Diego neighborhoods, Barrera saw it as a kind of job-creation program and means to combat local poverty.
“We want to use this multibillion-dollar construction program to actually help stimulate job creation in the neighborhoods where our kids live,” Barrera said. “Poverty matters, and to just throw up your hands and as a school system, say, ‘There’s nothing we can do about the conditions that our kids live in,’ is irresponsible.”
The agreement has since expanded to cover even more bond work. Board members committed future bonds to the same union-only rules in 2012 less than four months before voters passed the $2.8 billion Proposition Z bond measure. Combined, it was a boon for unions.
Barrera managed to place several union leaders on the state-mandated taxpayer oversight committee charged with independently policing Proposition S and Z bond projects.
In 2013, Barnett and Barrera pushed to amend the oversight group’s bylaws. Among other things, a representative of the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council, a major PLA signee, would get a permanent seat on the committee.
Barrera says labor leaders are perfectly suited to provide oversight for bond spending because they are experts. Besides, he said, members of the oversight committee have no say on where bond money will be spent. They simply monitor whether projects are being completed on time and on budget.
To Jim Ryan of the Association of General Contractors, who advocates for non-union contractors, the PLA is a win for unions and nothing more. He says the agreement drives up prices, meaning the district gets fewer school improvements from its bond money.
An independent analysis commissioned by the district in 2011 found lofty local hiring goals weren’t being met and there were fewer project bidders on average. More recent numbers from last year also found the district was short of its goals to hire 70 percent of its workers from local neighborhoods.
Regardless, San Diego Unified has been held up as a model for other districts across the county.
Since San Diego Unified signed its project labor agreement, Southwestern College, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and the Chula Vista Elementary School District have all followed suit. At least one other, the Sweetwater Union High School District, is in active union negotiations.
“I think, in his mind, all this helps the working man,” said Ryan, who clashed often with Barrera on construction matters. “Is what he’s doing illegal? Maybe not … But it’s more than a little incestuous.”
A Public School Leader, Chosen Out of Public View
In February 2013, the San Diego Unified School District was at a turning point. Kowba, then the superintendent, informed school board members he would resign at the end of the year.
Three years earlier, when the board selected its previous superintendent, it searched for four months before settling on Kowba.
During a closed-session meeting following Kowba’s announcement, trustees met to plot a course of action. No candidates stood out immediately. Someone in the group would float a suggestion, board members would discuss, then they’d move on.
That’s when Barrera says he first mentioned her name: “What about Cindy Marten?”
She wasn’t an obvious choice. Superintendents of large urban districts often have years of experience as a high school principal or senior-level administrator. Marten was an elementary school principal.
“I threw [Marten’s] name out there. And the minute I did, everybody in the room stopped what they were doing and thought about it for about five seconds. Then, the entire conversation shifted from who we should select, to the more practical issues of whether she was qualified, or if she’d even want the job,” Barrera said.
Board members called Marten to ask if she was interested. She was. With no search, Marten would lead the second-largest school district in California.
Even she later expressed how uncomfortable it was to get the job that way.
The board likely violated the state’s open-meetings laws by choosing Marten in that closed-session meeting without any public notice. But it didn’t really matter. The school board officially voted on Marten at the next public meeting.
Both Barnett and Barrera remember the way Marten was selected with a hint of regret. Each admits it wasn’t a public process. They also share a justification: They already knew they wanted Marten to be superintendent and they thought it would be dishonest to go through the motions of a public search.
But had they not selected Marten in the process they did, Barnett questions whether she would have been chosen at all.
“We knew there would have been a lot of sharp knives out from people who thought they could do the job better or for whatever reason thought they deserved the job more than Cindy,” Barnett said. “I thought at the time there would be enough backlash that one or two board members could change their vote, and that’s why I supported choosing Cindy in the way that we did.”
Barnett said it will take a few more years to see the results of Marten’s work. In a large urban school district, improvement takes time.
Barrera, however, is unwavering in his support for Marten. As principal of Central Elementary, Marten leveraged relationships with nonprofits that funneled food, health care and social services into her school. She mobilized parents. She spoke in soaring rhetoric. She built a nursery so the mothers who taught at her school could come back to work faster.
Today, three years after she was appointed, Marten is trying to implement similar reforms districtwide.
To Barrera, she is a warrior on the front lines in the fight against poverty. And she happens to be carrying out an agenda that aligns perfectly with his.