From reader Gray Harris, President of Alameda Education Association:
Something is very seriously amiss in our school district.
Some elements of our society tend aggressively to attack organized labor, despite the many, real benefits to all workers and to the community at large that have resulted from the sacrifices of working men and women and of the organizations that have focused and funneled their voices in their struggle for adequate working conditions and compensation, as well as – in the case of the education, health and public-safety fields – to protect the quality of service rendered to the public.
We have come to fear that the Alameda Unified School District may have been infected with a virulent strain of this union-busting malady, and to believe that the infection was contracted intentionally if, indeed, surreptitiously.
Please consider the following:
- Both our contract language and California Labor Law strictly forbid retaliation against workers for their participation in union activity. Past administrations have generally adhered to this structure and have intervened to enforce this protection when site-level administrators have strayed in their practice.
- Currently, administrators at both the site and district level have begun to harass, intimidate and punish individuals with previously unblemished records after those individuals have participated in protected organizational activity or have otherwise raised their voices in protest against administrative actions, policies or philosophies.
- While rarely a love-fest, bargaining sessions between the AEA and the AUSD had traditionally enjoyed at least a modicum of civility, creating a transactional context in which proposals and counter-proposals had some hope of being seriously considered en-route to some semblance of a compromise.
- Current negotiations are untrusting, fruitless exercises, fraught with stillborn proposals and bad-faith posturing. Indeed, the administration’s most vigorous contribution, by far, to recent negotiations has been its vituperative, largely effective PR effort to paint the teachers as recalcitrant in their rejection of the latest agreement tentatively bargained.
- Between 2004 and 2007, the AEA filed a total of five grievances against the AUSD for violations of our contract. All five were resolved at either Level One or Level Two, through intelligent, principled discussion and negotiation between representatives of the Association and of the District, as prescribed by our contract, without need for further recourse.
- Between 2008 and 2012, we have had to file over 65 grievances (an increase of over 1,000 percent). Many of these remain unresolved. Furthermore, a recent explosion in the number of (even veteran, highly respected, recently honored) teachers receiving referrals to PAR is likely to generate yet more grievances in the near future. (PAR is a program ostensibly designed to help struggling teachers improve in their practice…a laudable goal; however, it can also be [and, in practice, is] understood to be a step in the direction of a teacher’s ultimately being fired.)
All of which raises, in our minds, a disturbing set of critical questions:
Did Alameda Unified School District Superintendent Kirsten Vital intentionally hire a union-busting attorney?
Was the School Board aware that that was what she was doing?
Were the people of Alameda?
If not aware of it at the time, have School Board members caught on?
Has the public?
If not, why not?
If so, are we going to stand by and let the abuse of the educational workforce continue to occur, unchecked?
Or should we elect school board members like Spencer, Kahn and Murphy?
When AUSD hired Danielle Houck, in June of 2009, we were all led to believe that the move was designed to save money, to help curb legal costs by “advis(ing) staff and administrators on navigating the complex world of personnel management, as well as working with parents, businesses, teachers and interest groups,” according to a contemporary account in the Alameda Sun.
However, although the article asserts Superintendent Vital’s conviction that “Houck’s experience made her a ‘great choice’ for Alameda’s well-respected educational system,” and the appointment is said to be meant “to save money for the financially beleaguered education system and help officials to track legal expenditures for day-to-day advising,” we have come to suspect that the ploy plays into a more nefarious design.
Yet more to the point of possible ulterior reasoning behind bringing Ms. Houck’s services to our town is a perusal of her online biography, which extols her past success in a wide range of employment issues including “discrimination, disability accommodation, harassment and employee discipline and discharge, with excellent results for the firm’s school district clients.”
An impression begins to emerge that is decidedly less benign than the wholesome ‘money-saving’ argument created for the consumption of Alameda’s public, its labor groups, and its Board of Education. In this light, the litigious atmosphere currently suffocating relations between our school district and its teachers makes more sense.
The members of the Board have been in this school district for a long time.
They know, first-hand, the reality of “Alameda’s well respected educational system” and can speak the phrase without the potential ring of cynicism that it might take in the superintendent’s usage.
We all know, too, that the key to that well-deserved respect was a mutual, if at times necessarily cautious, regard between the town’s educational leaders, whether of the elected or of the professional / institutional variety, and the men and women who deliver the tender, sacred service to our young people that is at the heart of the entire endeavor.
It clearly strains credibility to have to imagine a Machiavellian superintendent ably aided and abetted by a fierce, expensive legal adviser highly trained in labor disempowerment.
It is hard to envision the loss of our traditional bonhomie, replaced by a festering, pestilent antagonism, ardently fueled by an administration’s deviant insistence on twisting every interpretation to its own advantage, all the while stepping – with no apparent qualms – on the rights of its teachers and vilifying the teachers’ association in every conceivable venue.
The mind wants to find an alternative explanation for the explosion of conflict reflected in that more-than-eight-fold increase in Grievances.
In any case, it certainly seems to be a question of the kind that the people’s elected trustees would want to look carefully into.
Don’t you think?
Please cast your vote for Trish Spencer, Barbara Kahn, and Jon Murphy for School Board on Nov. 6.