San Diego Teachers Union Ignores CA Financial Crisis

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Like referees in a “professional” wrestling match, leaders of the San Diego Education Association are adept at ignoring problems that are obvious to everyone else.

The San Diego Unified School District is facing a $124 million deficit for the 2012-13 school year. Last month, officials announced plans to lay off 821 teachers – roughly 13.5 percent of the district’s overall teaching staff – and 348 additional employees before school starts in the fall.

Parents, school officials, and taxpayers see the layoff announcement as further proof that California’s second-largest school district is close to going bankrupt and being taken over by the state.

They are urging union members to re-open their contracts and make concessions to preserve jobs and to shield students from the chaos caused by insolvency.

Shelli Kurth, director of San Diego United Parents for Education, summarized the district’s conundrum in a recent op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“In closely watching the financial discussion, it seems we are faced with three imperfect options to choose from: layoffs, adjustments to the current collective bargaining contracts or doing nothing,” Kurth writes. “Layoffs would mean fewer teachers and staff, increased class sizes, busting up staff teams and a disproportionate burden on low-income schools.”

But the San Diego Education Association (the teachers union) remains unfazed. Not only does the union refuse to take any meaningful action to avert a financial crisis, its leaders still scoff at the suggestion that a crisis even exists.

In a recent letter to members, SDEA President Bill Freeman calls the district’s budget predictions “premature” and says the proposed layoffs are based on a worst-case scenario that “has never once happened since the layoff cycle began in 2008.”

“With the release of the 2012-2013 budget books … our district has launched its now annual cycle of budgeting from a projected worst-case scenario that historically has never come to pass,” Freeman writes. “The district has publicly stated that they are planning to issue layoff notices to more than 1,000 educators – just as they did last year, only to recall nearly every single layoff in order to open schools in the fall.”

Clearly, Freeman isn’t losing much sleep over the San Diego Unified School District’s nine-figure deficit.

But some of union’s rank-and-file members see Freeman’s attitude as cavalier and indifferent toward the 821 teachers whose jobs are hanging in the balance.

Two middle schools teachers, Erin Schumacher and Kaitlin Rosichan, explained their concerns in a recent letter to Freeman which was later published on VoiceOfSanDiego.org.

“With the recession lasting longer than expected when the contract was first negotiated with San Diego Unified (in 2010), we would like to see the union be willing to address employee concessions,” Schumacher and Rosichan write. “… Not only would this benefit the teachers currently at their sites working within their communities, but also the students whose learning will be most greatly affected.”

They also take aim at the practice of basing teacher layoffs on seniority, and argue it is the young teachers who pay the price of SDEA’s intransigent behavior.

“The current cycle of pink slips and layoffs for the new teachers has continued, will continue, until we are willing to work with each other as professionals,” writes Schumacher and Rosichan.

It all comes down to money

With growing criticism from the public and its own membership, why aren’t SDEA leaders being more cooperative in helping solve the district’s worsening budget problems?

As usual, it all comes down to money.

When the final year of SDEA’s current three-year contract kicks in this summer, union members will receive pay raises of 7.2 percent.

The first two years of their contract contained five fewer school days, which acted as a temporary wage reduction of 2.7 percent. Senior union members – those not affected by the potential layoffs – want that 7.2 percent raise, and are willing to risk the careers of their young colleagues to get it.

But saying that out loud would be terrible public relations for the union. So instead, SDEA leaders are pretending the budget problems don’t really exist.

They argue that state lawmakers will restore K-12 dollars by the time the budget gets voted on in June.

If lawmakers don’t deliver, SDEA leaders say California voters will certainly approve a tax hike which would funnel more money into the state’s public education system.

But even that might be wishful thinking, as there may be as many as three tax hike proposals competing on the statewide ballot next November.

As a recent Orange County Register editorial notes, ” … [S]everal initiatives on the same ballot could confuse voters and divide the pro-tax vote, resulting in none of them passing.”

If that happens, Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he will proceed with plans to cut $4.8 billion from schools.

Should the worst-case scenario come to pass, the San Diego school district will need twice as many concessions from its school employee unions as it’s currently seeking, reports the Union-Tribune.

That would be disastrous for teachers and students alike. Nevertheless, Freeman and other union leaders are choosing to ignore the gathering storm clouds, believing that it never rains in southern California.

But like the old song says, sometimes “it pours.”

And when it does, it will be San Diego’s students and youngest teachers who will be left standing in the rain.