SF School Board members are suddenly pals

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year, the district issues pink slips to several hundred teachers -- and most years, most of those layoffs are later rescinded.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