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Galvanized by Strike, Parents Seek Union

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San Diego

Amonth after a five-day teachers strike that shook the San Diego Unified School District, union and management remain at odds, haggling over details of the agreement that ended the walkout.

Parents, on the other hand, have their act together.

Angry and frustrated over the strike, parent groups from throughout the diverse, 130,000-student district have come together. And now, a new coalition wants to form a "parents' union" to press for a greater voice in setting policy for their children's education.

"Parents are not at the table in key areas of decisionmaking," said Walter Kudumu, the director of the Center for Parent Involvement in Education, a nonprofit group here that works with parents and played a lead role in bringing them together during the strike. "There is a strong sense that parents districtwide are disenfranchised."

The parents' headquarters is the Malcolm X Library, a vibrantly colorful, modern building that opened in January in a poor part of town. Parents and community activists from all walks of life regularly gather there to plan ways to build on their newfound unity.

Mr. Kudumu, whose five children attended San Diego Unified schools, points out that 13 of 20 items under dispute during the strike were unrelated to salaries and benefits. "Those were things parents had a right and a responsibility to speak of," he said. (See Education Week, Feb. 7 and Feb. 14, 1996.)

Already, the coalition of parent leaders has commanded a special meeting with union and district officials to discuss the contract settlement. A subcommittee is drawing up a position paper spelling out parents' concerns. After the contract is signed, the parents plan to press the school board for another meeting.

The parents are most concerned about the process of sharing decisionmaking at schools and what they see as a lack of teacher accountability for student achievement. And they say that, despite the district's efforts to involve parents, they remain outsiders when it comes to major policy decisions.

The five elected members of the school board are, in theory, the representatives of parents and community members. But the strike diminished confidence in the board, parents say, when lines of communication seemed to dry up.

As a small but significant example, they complain that the district's strike hot line was answered only in English, when San Diego Unified students speak 56 different languages. The student body is 17 percent African-American, 19 percent Asian, 33 percent Hispanic, and 30 percent white.

'We Don't Count'

For the past six years, the district has encouraged shared decisionmaking through school governance teams. Each school determines the makeup of the teams, the process for reaching agreement, and the areas for which they will assume decisionmaking responsibility.

During the strike, many parents were alarmed by the San Diego Teachers Association's push to gain 50 percent of the seats on these teams. The union also wanted the new contract to give the teams specific authority over school budgets, staffing, scheduling, and other matters.

William M. Crane, the union president, calls shared decisionmaking as it is now structured "a big fuzz game" that is too dependent on principals' leadership styles.

"We need to get real about this," Mr. Crane said.

Parents, who have viewed shared decisionmaking as an opportunity to play a greater role, balked at what they saw as a union power grab. They also point out that, under the tentative agreement, disagreements over shared decisionmaking can be referred to a committee with no parent representatives.

"When they put in the contract certain agendas that affect parents and we didn't sit at the table, they have put up a barrier against our inherent right to participate," argued Judith R. Williams, the president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs. "They have devalued our voice, and they are saying we don't count."

The school board fought to keep shared decisionmaking out of the contract, arguing that it was a process that involved too many stakeholders. The agreement calls for a task force, half of whose members must be union members, to study shared decisionmaking and make recommendations.

Ron Ottinger, a board member who is running for re-election, says the board preserved the parents' voice by fighting the union's attempt to "grab control."

Although the district was enthusiastic in the late 1980s when it began its foray into shared decisionmaking--under a different superintendent and union president--the approach has not proved itself a key lever for increasing student achievement, Mr. Ottinger says.

"We want as many decisions on how to structure the instructional program to be made at the site level," he said, "but it is not a substitute for having real policy and strategies that raise achievement."

The movement to give parents greater roles in school governance also has caused friction in other cities. Parents here shake their heads over the 1989 teachers' strike in Los Angeles, which ended with a contract that gave teachers half of the seats on new shared decisionmaking councils in schools.

Press for Accountability

Many parents here say their frustration with the district and the union is playing out against the backdrop of the poor performance of many African-American and Hispanic students.

"The bottom line is parents want accountability, academically and fiscally," said L‚s Pierres Streater, a parent activist who is running against Mr. Ottinger for a seat on the school board. "There is nothing in the contract saying a child's academic success is tied to a teacher's performance."

Instead, parents complain, the contract places barriers between families and teachers. Some are offended by a provision that spells out, for example, how low students' grades must be before parents are notified that their children are in academic trouble.

"If there's a problem with my kid," said Willye McClintock, whose grandchildren attend public schools, "think enough of me to pick up the phone and call me before I get a note from the principal saying that my kid is being thrown out of school."

Over the past few years, parents and teachers also have been unhappy with decisions made by the school board to decrease class sizes in the 1st and 2nd grades and to close all high school campuses during lunch time for safety reasons.

These policies were seen as top down. Some parents wanted each high school to determine whether to close its own campus, says Ann Armstrong, the board president. And teachers resisted the class-size reductions in some schools because additional class space had to be carved out.

Ms. Armstrong says she welcomes parents' new advocacy, although she balks at the adversarial tone implied by "parents' union."

"Intelligent people are pushing, and it's high time," Ms. Armstrong said. "We have to let them into the decisionmaking process even more than we have."

But Mr. Crane, the union president, doubts that parents can gain a formal role in the employer-employee bargaining process.

"We are not interested in abdicating the contract authority to a group of parents, many of whom owe no allegiance to anybody but themselves," he said. "Most no longer have kids in schools. These are professional-parent people."

Short of pushing for passage of legislation that would allow a third party at the bargaining table, parents can increase their role in the negotiation process, according to Susie Lange, the spokeswoman for the California education department.

"How appropriate it is that they actually would come in on collective bargaining is an issue that needs a lot of public discussion," she said. "But they could have some kind of review, nearing the end of a contract period, so that the board is aware of what the community wants."

'Sleeping Giant'

It was during the pre-strike turmoil that parents from all corners of the district realized how much they had in common.

In late January, as the strike threatened, nine representatives of established parent organizations signed a statement calling on both sides to put students' needs first and stating their intention to find a legal way to "become a vital part of the negotiation process."

In addition to Mr. Kudumu, the statement was signed by the PTA, a Hispanic community group, and parents representing district advisory councils concerned with the education of disadvantaged, bilingual, and minority students.

The Center for Parent Involvement in Education also convened meetings that spawned an umbrella group, Parents United for Children. During the strike, Parents United worked the phones to keep parents informed, sponsored rallies, and held simultaneous candlelight vigils at the district and union offices.

Mr. Kudumu now hopes the coalition can create an independent parent group and fight to gain a legal foothold in the bargaining process. Not all of the organizations that have participated so far, however, want to see a "union" created. The PTA, for example, hesitates at the idea.

But San Diego parents insist they will remain cohesive and far more active in the district than they once were.

"I have met a great many people I didn't know existed," said Holly Gray, a parent active in a district elementary school. "They have awakened a sleeping giant. This is not a union school district. This is a public school district, and there are many people who need to be involved if it is to remain so."

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