SF School Board members are suddenly pals

teachers protest layoffs in March, 2012. UESF photo

I'm used to negative campaigning in San Francisco School Board races. Two years ago, much of the effort candidates were putting forward seemed to be about trashing Margaret Brodkin. These days, I'm getting emails from all sides telling me IN CAPITAL LETTERS who the Guardian should never endorse.

And the board itself has been bitterly divided at times; Rachel Norton and Jill Wynns used to constantly fight with Sandra Fewer. There were two factions on the board, and there's no way either side would support a member of the opposing crew.

But a funny thing is happening this fall. Among the torrent of trash-talk, the three incumbents -- Norton, Wynns, and Fewer -- have nothing bad to say about each other. In fact, everyone agrees that the board is working more closely together than it has in years, and while they aren't always saying so in public, Wynns, Fewer and Norton are quietly helping each other out with their campaigns. All three told us they'd be happy to see their colleagues win re-election.

And it's all because of the teacher's union.

Back in March, the school board, by a 5-1 vote, did something almost unheard of in this union town: They discarded the rule of seniority and protected the jobs of 70 mostly newer teachers while issuing layoff notices to teachers with time on the job. The superintendent, Carlos Garcia, wanted to end the cycle of high turnover at 14 school with historically low performance rates, so he created a special "superintendent's zone." Teachers who agreed to work in schools that veterans often sought to avoid received extra training and support. Principals sought to build working teams that would stick together.

Then came the annual pink-slip ritual.

The SFUSD administration doesn't know in the spring how much money it's going to have for the next fiscal year. That's because the state doesn't finalize it's budget until summer. And by law, the district is required to give teachers notice in March if they might be laid off come September.

So every year, the district issues pink slips to several hundred teachers -- and most years, most of those layoffs are later rescinded.

Layoffs are mostly, but not entirely, done by seniority -- teachers with advanced skills that are hard to find (special-ed teachers and some math and science teachers, for example) are exempt from the normal layoff process. But the union didn't consider the 70 Superintendent Zone teachers as fitting that description -- and when the board sided with Garcia and protected those teachers from pink slips, union leaders were furious.

Fewer, a staunch progressive who had never so directly defied the union before, told us she was so nervous before the vote that she wasn't sure she could speak. But speak she did -- making a strong statement that the visible, measurable progress in those 14 schools justified a tough decision. Four of her colleagues, including Wynns and Norton, backed her up.

For the United Educators of San Francisco, this was unacceptable. Seniority is at the heart of most union contracts, and once you carve out exceptions like this, the union argued, you go down a very dangerous path. An administrative law judge agreed, and ruled in May that the district acted improperly.

As it turns out, enough layoffs were rescinded that it isn't really an issue any more -- but the bad blood is still there. UESF has refused to support a single incumbent for re-election. Ken Tray, a UESF representative, told me that the superintendent was "at war with the teachers union" and called the vote "a toxic mess."

But the ire of the union has brought the incumbents closer together. Wynns and Fewer have something in common now. They feel like they've been through -- to use Tray's term -- a war together.

Not, I suspect, what UESF had in mind. But it's happening. And it could affect the outcome of the election.


""Back in March, the school board, by a 5-1 vote, did something almost unheard of in this union town: They discarded the rule of seniority and protected the jobs of 70 mostly newer teachers while issuing layoff notices to teachers with time on the job.""

Schools like Everett Middle School and Mission High (you know, the ones you would never send your own kids to, Tim) were staffed with newbies who were layed off every year. The idea was to let some of these young teachers, young-bloods who are still enthusiastic about teaching- stay at these schools.

Minority/immigrant students and their parents liked the idea. The union didn't because it violated the sacred "seniority" oath.

In the end
The losers: Immigrants and minorities
The winners: Your sacred teacher's union

Posted by Troll the XIV on Sep. 11, 2012 @ 6:55 am

Tim, by this point, your kids must have had one or two middle school teachers who were mind-boggingly inept. At my kid's school, one teacher talked to the kids about her boyfriend troubles a lot. Another took every Thursday/Friday off.

As parents, you complain and complain, and nothing ever gets done. If you raise enough hell, the teacher merely gets transferred to another school.

The seniority system is sacred, and bad teachers know this. I estimate that 15% of SFUSD teachers are incompetent. 50% are absolutely great. And those 50% will tell you in private that the 15% needs to go.

Posted by Troll the XIV on Sep. 11, 2012 @ 6:59 am

Rachel Norton and Jill Wynns and Sandra Fewer are perhaps the only school board members in history who are not using the job merely as a stepping-stone to a politicial career (supervisor, mayor, congressman, president).

They care about the kids.

Fewer is a leftist (you endorsed her last time), but she gets her back up when anyone screams at her about right-and-wrong, as the union did regarding Superintendent Garcia's plan to make Mission High, Everett Middle, and other schools minority schools better.

Posted by Troll the XIV on Sep. 11, 2012 @ 7:04 am

You can watch the school board members wrestling with their emotions and being shouted at by union leadership on SF gov TV -- lots of drama. http://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=47&clip_id

Posted by Parent on Sep. 11, 2012 @ 9:55 am

Tim never wants to discuss this when SFUSD parents bring up the weaknesses of the seniority system.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

Murase was predictably absent from the meeting that night, as she always is whenever a tough vote has to be made.
Those three Board of Education Commissioners, Fewer, Norton and Wynns, were brave -- they voted for the kids, even though they knew the amount of vindictive backlash they were going to be subjected to; the ugly hate-filled venom we are seeing happening now. Those three women did their job -- they thought about what was best for the students at those struggling schools. I was very proud of them, that evening. Vote for Fewer, Norton and Wynns, BECAUSE they stand up for kids. SFBG, if you just think about the kids, you will give those three brave women your endorsement. Please do the right thing.

Posted by Mom on Sep. 16, 2012 @ 7:59 am

I've been in a union which had years before signed away its credibility in a two-tier... then three-tier sellout deal. Those deals are the worst kind of union BS.

I'm sure a case can be made for seniority, I'm just not clear on what it is. Please enlighten me.

Posted by lillipublicans on Sep. 16, 2012 @ 9:18 am

guard into their generous and unsustainable packages but draw a line in the sand for new entrants. You see this even in the public sector, where the pension rules for new hires are significantly worse (or more sustainable, depending on how you see it) than the older folks.

Personally I think it's fairer to have everyone on the same deal but, if the oldsters aren't willing to give back, then more has to be taken from the youngsters. The cake is a fixed size and we're just quibbling over how it is sliced.

Posted by Anonymous on Sep. 16, 2012 @ 10:26 am

Not only is it "fairer," but unlike a two-tier-three-tier-four system, you aren't ringing the death bell for the union. Two tier systems *suck* and union bosses (I know -- that's a right-wing meme) who negotiate such deals are bullshit. Union members who vote yes on such deals are bullshit. Fuck them.

Somebody please convince me otherwise.

Posted by lillipublicans on Sep. 16, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

I agree with "mom".

I'm a long-term PTSA officer in SFUSD. These three courageous women were standing up for poor and immigrant parents and kids.

Yes, 'seniority' is important. But it should not be defended at all costs, and Kelly's screaming diatribe addressed at Wynns-Norton-Fewer will backfire this time.

'Seniority' protects the 10% of teachers who should not be teaching. Who know they cannot be fired ever. Who, when parents complain loudly enough, merely get transferred to a different school in the 'dance of the lemons.

As usual, Tim does not want to discuss this. He's hiding in the bushes somewhere.

Posted by Troll the XIV on Sep. 16, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

Tim, if you and the SFBG staff endorse the union milktoasts and Wynns-Norton-Fewer get canned, I can only wish this onto you and yours...

...that your kids get stuck with one or two of those deadbeat teachers next year. It has probably happened already. You know, that teacher who 1) merely assigns reading in class and plays on the computer for 50 minutes each day, or 2) takes every Friday off, or 3) calls in sick a lot or 4) talks throughout classtime w/o teaching anything, etc.

Your kids don't deserve that. But it happens all the time.

Posted by Troll the XIV on Sep. 16, 2012 @ 8:14 pm