Teaching Profession

Teachers Seek School Board Overhaul

By Jeff Archer — October 30, 2002 15 min read
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The teachers begin arriving at union headquarters around 4:30 p.m. They grab a plate of Mexican food delivered by a local restaurant, pick up a binder of scripts, and settle in at 37 phones spread out on folding tables. Carolyn Vega, the phone-bank “captain” for the evening, offers a few tips on tactfulness before they get started.

“Think about how you deal with parents,” says Ms. Vega, by day a 3rd grade teacher. “We don’t want it controversial. Keep it sweet. We want those votes.”

The Union
Imprint: Part I

  • Teachers Seek School Board Overhaul

Since mid-September, that scene has played out six days a week here at the offices of the San Diego Education Association. Along with telephoning, union members have sent thousands of campaign postcards to friends and relatives, handed out fliers to parents before school, and organized two citywide precinct walks to canvass for votes door to door. It all has one purpose: to tilt the balance of power on the San Diego school board in next week’s elections.

Since 1998, the five-person panel governing the 140,000- student San Diego city school system has been split 3-2 on virtually every major issue put before it. The razor-thin majority has served as the basis of support for the district’s two high-profile leaders, Superintendent Alan D. Bersin and his second-in-command, Anthony J. Alvarado, as they’ve carried out a comprehensive school improvement effort. The two have stressed staff training and an intensive focus on teaching students basic skills.

Along with the board’s two dissenters, the local teachers’ union has been the loudest critic of the changes that have taken place here in recent years. Many members claim that they’ve lost flexibility in how they teach, that the added time spent on literacy and mathematics leaves little for other subjects, and that students now see school as drudgery. The core problem, say union leaders, is that teachers had almost no hand in crafting the district’s new policies.

“We’re just saying we want to be at the table,” said Terry Pesta, the president of the SDEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “We’ve been left out of the process from the very beginning.”

That situation could change after Nov. 5. Like the union itself, the two candidates it backs are highly critical of the recent initiatives in the district and call for a bigger teacher voice in the way the school system is run. Those views would prevail if they both win. And if that happens, many observers here suspect Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado would soon be gone. At the least, major portions of their agenda would be altered.

Many of the superintendent’s strongest supporters see the union’s bid as a blatant power grab. To assert its influence, those union critics say, the teachers’ organization is willing to trash one of the country’s most closely watched experiments in systemic change in K-12 education. Says school board President Ron Ottinger, who is not up for re-election and supports Mr. Bersin: “In San Diego, the teachers’ union has always wanted a veto power over any new initiative.”

Union officials, however, maintain that they’re not seeking their own rubber stamps on the board. Rather, they argue, the district’s efforts to raise student achievement are critically flawed, a situation that could have been avoided if teachers had been given more input into the planning. What’s more, they charge that they’re up against well-financed business interests that have had undue influence on the administration and the current board majority.

Whatever the merits of the opposing sides in the debate, the efforts of the San Diego union provide a glimpse into how important local school board races have become to teachers’ unions. Along with negotiating new contracts, supporting school board candidates is one of the organizations’ most powerful tools for advocating on behalf of their members and shaping local education policy.


The San Diego union is hardly alone among teachers’ groups in taking sides in district board races. A recent poll of school board members sponsored by the National School Boards Association found that teachers’ unions were the group most often cited as being active in such elections—more often than groups representing parents, business people, minorities, or religious organizations. In districts of 25,000 students or more, nearly 80 percent of the respondents said teachers’ groups played an active role in their local races.

Often, those efforts amount to little more than endorsements. But when the stakes are high, unions have upped the ante. In 1995, teachers’ groups in Wilkinsburg, Pa., and Hartford, Conn., gave five-figure donations to support school board candidates who opposed local plans to privatize school management. Three years later, campaigning by the United Educators of San Francisco played a crucial role in a board shake-up there that some say speeded the departure of Superintendent Waldemar “Bill” Rojas.

“I find in San Francisco that teachers and paraprofessionals make a much closer connection to the power of the school board now than they did five to 10 years ago,” said Kent Mitchell, the president of the union there, a merged local of the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers. “They do understand that as teachers and paraprofessionals they have this amazing ability to help determine their own work life.”

In San Diego, there’s no disputing that the work lives of teachers have changed since the arrival of Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado in 1998. In a system that had been largely decentralized, the two sought to establish common instructional strategies throughout its 182 schools. Their efforts are laid out in a wide-ranging plan as ambitious as its title: “The Blueprint for Student Success in a Standards-Based System.”

All elementary school classes, for instance, now spend three hours a day on literacy, and all kindergarten classes have been made into full-day programs. A course that stretches two to three periods long has been introduced in the middle grades to improve reading and composition skills.

At the same time, teachers are getting heavy doses of professional development in specific teaching methods, followed by frequent observations of how they use those methods in the classroom. One of the sorest points for educators here is that 600 teachers’ aides lost their jobs to free up money for parts of the blueprint.

Whether the changes are for the better is the central question in the current school board races, in which four candidates are vying for two seats. In one corner sits Clyde Fuller, a retired FBI agent, and Katherine Nakamura, a lawyer and university administrator. Both argue that the overhaul of the district has brought much-needed improvements.

Though conceding that the swift pace of change has taken a toll on many staff members, and that some policies may need tweaking, the pair say recent test-score gains validate the district’s overall approach. Says Ms. Nakamura: “When you’ve got a house half built, the most expensive thing you can do is burn it down and start all over.”

In the other corner are Jeff Lee, a former U.S. Navy officer, and John deBeck, a retired teacher and the only incumbent. Together, the two union-backed candidates complain that teachers are now hamstrung in how they provide instruction, and that the arts, social studies, and other subjects have been squeezed out by the new focus on basic skills.

Mr. Lee, a longtime parent activist in the district, has his own favorite metaphor for describing the blueprint. “When I buy a car, I don’t ask the engineer who designed it how good it is,” he says. “Of course he’s going to tell you it’s great. I ask the people who drive the car. And when you ask the teachers, they tell you this blueprint is a lemon.”

‘Work Our Tails Off’

For the union to claim success next week, both Mr. Lee and Mr. deBeck must win. A victory by only one of them would continue the board’s current split in favor of the superintendent, because two of the three members not up for election support the blueprint.

“We know it’s going to be a tough race,” the SDEA’s Mr. Pesta said. “We’re going to work our tails off.”

Just how much of the union’s energies are consumed by campaigning is evident these days at the group’s headquarters in a two-story office building in San Diego’s suburban Mission Valley area. Newly printed yard signs and door hangers await distribution. Sign-up sheets are posted asking for volunteers to hand out fliers at street fairs and ethnic festivals.

The phone bank set up in a back room has made as many as 1,500 calls in a single shift. Lists generated from the county elections office allow callers to zero in on most-likely voters as they make their pitch. Each call begins with “Hello ... I’m a teacher.” Undecided voters are told that the superintendent’s policies “have increased our dropout rates and demoralized teachers.”

Like many of the volunteers who show up each day, Alison Knowles says her motivation comes from firsthand experience. The 30- year-old 2nd grade teacher says the district’s new professional-development regime will keep her out of her classroom 15 days this year. And while she says morale at her school hasn’t suffered as much as at others, she maintains that the system’s emphasis on certain teaching techniques fails to address differences in students’ skills and learning styles.

“This campaign is so important,” said Ms. Knowles, sipping a Diet Coke and nibbling a chocolate- chip cookie between calls. “If we don’t get out and try to make a change, then we really can’t complain about it.”

‘We Have the Bodies’

Teachers like Ms. Knowles are the bread and butter of the union’s campaign. The SDEA’s 9,000 members represent an enviable army of potential volunteers, as well as a conduit for getting its message out to teachers’ families and friends. Recognizing that teachers’ votes alone could tip the scales in this election, union leaders at each school are reminding colleagues to go to the polls.

“The other side has the money, and we have the bodies,” contended Gail Boyle, a former SDEA president who is now part of the union’s staff. “If they do phone banks, they have to pay for it. All we have to pay for is food for our volunteers. And they can’t say to people, ‘I’m a teacher.’ ”

Still, the union has amassed an unusually large war chest for a local school board race. According to disclosure forms filed here last week, the SDEA’s political action committee had by Oct. 19 already raised nearly $462,000 this year, including $300,000 from its state parent, the California Teachers Association.

That’s more than twice the amount the local raised throughout 2000, the last time a school board election was held here, when most of the big-ticket items went toward mailings and radio spots. (By way of a national comparison, fewer than 6 percent of school board members from large districts in the NSBA’s recent poll said they raised more than $25,000 for their last campaigns.)

“This operation is top-notch,” said Elsie Jones, a staff member at the San Diego local who came here two years ago from the NEA’s Georgia affiliate, where she did political work. “It would be on the cutting edge if a small state organization were doing this.”

Major-League Politics

In fact, the SDEA’s efforts must be cutting-edge for it to have any hope of winning. In part, that’s because of the way elections are held in San Diego. While the primaries are organized so that each candidate for the board runs only in one of five regional districts, the winners run citywide in the general election.

That means anyone running for the school board here must campaign across a bigger landscape than someone running for one of the area’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Getting a candidate’s message across in a city of 1.3 million people takes significant backing, and all four contenders in this race have heavy hitters in their corners.

While Mr. Lee and Mr. deBeck have the teachers’ union, Mr. Fuller has gotten help from the local Republican Party. The GOP has sent out at least two mailings on his behalf, including one aimed at 140,000 Republican households. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, also a Republican, gave the keynote address at a Fuller fund-raiser.

Meanwhile, Ms. Nakamura has been endorsed by state schools chief Delaine Eastin, as well as several San Diego City Council members. She and Mr. Fuller also got a boost when U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige visited the district this month and praised its improvement efforts.

“It’s often the case in these races that the unions are not opposed by important counter-organizations,” observed Michael W. Kirst, a political scientist and education professor at Stanford University. “In San Diego, they are.”

Indeed, the SDEA was vastly outspent during the 2000 school board race. That year, union-backed candidate Frances O’Neill Zimmerman was the target of a negative television ad paid for mostly by business people, including Wal-Mart heir John Walton, San Diego Padres owner John Moores, and the chief executive officers of two local telecommunications companies. Funding for the commercial—an unprecedented feature for a school board race here—topped $500,000. Ms. Zimmerman, an incumbent and vocal critic of the superintendent, nonetheless won re-election.

Ms. Zimmerman credits her narrow victory, in part, to a backlash against what she calls the “heavy handed” campaign against her, and the last-minute rallying by the SDEA. "[The unions] have a lot of influence,” she said recently. “But they don’t have any more influence than any business group.”

As of last week, no similar television campaign had been launched to counter this year’s union efforts. Mr. Lee and Mr. deBeck have said they expect to face a large business- supported opposition campaign just before Election Day. In the meantime, many of the business leaders who opposed Ms. Zimmerman two years ago have made the maximum $500 contribution to the campaigns of Ms. Nakamura and Mr. Fuller, as have some business owners’ families.

San Diego business leaders say they have a legitimate stake in the outcome. Poor student performance in the past, they argue, has hurt their ability to attract new companies and recruit skilled workers. Before Mr. Bersin was hired, just 41 percent of the district’s students were reading at or above grade level, and the achievement gap between minority and white students had been growing for several years. Since the new administration took over, all minority groups but Asian- Americans have exceeded the gains made by white students, and 48 percent of all students are reading at or above grade level.

The fear is that an about- face by the school board now would halt that progress, said Ginger Hovenic, the president of the local Business Roundtable for Education, an offshoot of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“There are 125 members on this roundtable, and this is foremost in their minds,” said Ms. Hovenic, a former Harvard University lecturer and winner of the National Distinguished Principal of the Year award. “They realize any kind of reform depends on the leadership at the top. And if that leader leaves, the reform stops.”


Union leaders say it didn’t have to come to this. Mr. Pesta and many SDEA members assert that teachers would have bought in to many parts of the blueprint if they believed they had played a part in its design. In particular, the use of outside consultants—many from Mr. Alvarado’s old district in New York and some from as far away as New Zealand— has left a bitter taste in union members’ mouths.

“All the changes aren’t bad,” said Ms. Knowles, the phone-bank volunteer. “It’s the execution of the changes. It’s, ‘You will do this; if not, you’re bad.’ ”

Some national observers and even some supporters of the blueprint agree that the rollout of the plan could have been handled better. An exhaustive study of the district’s efforts by the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research group in Washington, urges that more be done to help teachers see the “big picture” of the new policies. Adds the report: “They also need to feel valued.”

Ms. Hovenic agrees more attention could have been paid to the stress that the many changes put on district staff members.

“If there had been some sense of, ‘Hang in there, I hear your pain,’ then it would not be what it is now,” she said.

Mr. Alvarado, the blueprint’s chief architect, isn’t so sure. Tensions have been high between district officials and the SDEA almost from the day the board surprised many educators here by hiring Mr. Bersin. He had served as U.S. attorney in San Diego following his appointment to the post by President Clinton and had no experience working in education. From early on, Mr. Alvarado says, union and district leaders clashed not just on parts of the improvement plan, but also on such underpinnings as the need to bring greater coherence to the district’s instructional practices.

“We actually had antithetical theories of action about what a reform is,” said Mr. Alvarado, whose official title is chancellor of instruction. “So it wasn’t something that could be negotiated.”

Working Together?

Despite the conflict, Mr. Alvarado insists he’s no union basher. As the head of New York City’s Community School District 2 from 1987 to 1998, he forged a close relationship with leaders of the AFT affiliate there as he sought to improve reading instruction and teacher training. That work even won him an award from the AFT that now hangs over his desk.

The chancellor claims to be giving little thought to the effect that the pending elections could have on his job, or that of his boss. But even if the union doesn’t prevail, he sees the SDEA playing a more active role in shaping district policy in the future. Said Mr. Alvarado: “I predict that we will start to do business together, that the temperature will drop, and there will be much more, much more collaborative work.”

In other words, the union will have a seat at the table.

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including goverance, management, and labor relations—is supported by Broad Foundation.

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