Election wrap-up – teachers unions in descent?


Barbara Groth’s surprising loss for re-election to her fifth term on the San Dieguito Union High School District Board of Education, and incumbent Amy Herman’s lackluster third-place finish, may signify that a union endorsement might not be such a great thing.

Incumbent (and perpetual Groth irritant) John Salazar finished strongly in second, while challenger Mo Muir bested them all. Neither Salazar nor Muir even sought the teachers union endorsement.

Muir, a current Encinitas Union School District board member, ran a strong campaign based on her message that the current San Dieguito board consistently fails to listen to parents.

In the Oct. 16 issue of this newspaper, all seven SDUHSD candidates were asked the same questions. Their answers were revealing.

When asked to identify the biggest issues facing the district, Muir let loose with both barrels: “Fiscal accountability, a lack of transparency, a lack of responsiveness to the parents and students, misplaced curriculum priorities, and a lack of focus on successful student performance.”

Muir, a Republican, will be missed by many parents in Encinitas who regarded her as a voice for their concerns and one who kept a sharp eye on the bottom line. Her vocal objections to the Encinitas district’s costly, and now infamous, Palm Springs retreat made her a favorite among fiscal conservatives, like Salazar.

When Republicans are elected to school boards, social liberals sit up and take notice, with valid concerns about stealth candidates promoting personal right-wing social agendas.

However, in her six years on the Encinitas school board, Muir has not demonstrated any interest in pursuing such issues – unless you count the motivation to keep costs in check.

Salazar, also a Republican, shares Muir’s fiscal concerns and during his first term showed a complete disregard for controversial conservative agendas – unless you count the motivation to keep costs in check.

Just elected to his second term, Salazar is clearly persona non grata for Groth who at board meetings could barely hide her contempt for him. His crime? Not always voting with the board majority.

All votes in the last four years have been either 5-0 or 4-1, with Salazar the lone nay vote.

Groth was so anxious to rid the board of Salazar that she wrote in the Oct. 16 issue, “Our district deserves a board where all five members put students first when making decisions.”

Her comment was clearly meant to convey her desire for a 5-0 rubber-stamp board. Apparently, a 4-1 board wasn’t good enough. And if you had the nerve to vote against the board majority on occasion, you weren’t putting students first.

Hardly embarrassed by this, Salazar wrote in the Oct. 16 candidate questionnaire, “It is important that while we continue to improve the district’s performance, it is also important that there be someone on the board who will also be watchful that the district spends its resources wisely. I am that person.”

Salazar also wrote, “I don’t believe you elected me to be a rubber stamp. I believe the district is better as a result of a free and open discussion of all issues.”

Contributing to the negative response to the candidacies of Groth and Herman may have been the board’s approval just before the election of a much-criticized contract for a task force facilitator at the outrageous price of $350 per hour, with no not-to-exceed ceiling nor a contract expiration date.

The contract, for Leonard Steinberg of the Creative Alliance Group of Encinitas, was recommended by staff and was approved 4 to 1, with only Salazar opposed.

The union label

The third candidate endorsed by San Dieguito’s teachers union, Simeon Greenstein, came in fifth. Greenstein is a former teacher in the district.

The union wasn’t alone in endorsing the slate of three. Also on the bandwagon were Joyce Dalessandro and Beth Hergesheimer, SDUHSD trustees re-elected to their seats in 2012.

Clearly, union backing did not help, and quite possibly hurt. One union leader once told me he wanted to keep a low profile of union endorsements. As he said, “People love their teachers but aren’t so crazy about their union.”

An astute observation.

As an aside, Bob Croft, head of the San Dieguito Faculty Association (SDUHSD’s teachers union), told me in an interview before the election that only four of the seven candidates sought the union endorsement. So the recommendation from the union was for three out of four, not three out of seven.

The fourth candidate seeking union support was Rimga Viskanta, who offered a refreshing observation that she “would like to see at least one member of the board be someone with children still in the district,” as she wrote in the Oct. 16 issue.

Viskanta also espoused the view that term limits may be needed on school boards. With Groth running for her fifth term and Dalessandro in the middle of her fifth term, the point is well-taken. Career politicians on school boards cease to provide historical relevance after eight or at most 12 years.

Viskanta was brave (or naïve?) to seek the union endorsement when it was a foregone conclusion that the union would support Greenstein, Groth and Herman.

Croft did say that Viskanta was an outstanding individual – engaging and insightful. He said the 13 members of his executive board, who interviewed the four candidates at length, felt comfortable with her and could work with her had she been elected. But they unanimously preferred the two incumbents and former teacher.

Croft, now in his 35th year in the district, is not one to vilify. As head of the SDFA for so long he can’t remember, Croft has established one of the least adversarial relationships with management of any union in the county. For that he is to be commended.

Croft and his organization, which represents about 600 teachers, work amiably with district staff on issues of relevance to both parties. There have been sticking points, of course. But overall, the relationship has been a model of civility, thanks in large part to the years of cooperation between Croft and former associate superintendent of human resources Terry King. This laid the foundation for reciprocal respect for mutual interests.

Jobs for life

Teachers unions do a good job advocating for their members – i.e., teachers. And when unions endorse, they are supporting, in essence, their bosses, the people who control their salaries and benefits.

Sometimes teacher, student, parent and taxpayer interests intersect, but often they do not. What’s good for teachers is not always good for students and the public – or for education policy, which is in desperate need of serious reform.

With the growing realization that teachers unions represent the status quo and actively oppose many changes that would benefit students, many voters are seeing candidates endorsed by unions as ones to avoid.

It’s undeniable that there is growing enthusiasm for fundamental systemic change in education policy that so often benefits teachers at the expense of poor and disenfranchised students. The best example is the recent Vergara vs. the state of California case.

Or look to Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, which has the dubious distinction as being one of the worst-performing of any in the country.

Rhee, in her well-documented frustration with her union’s intransigence, at one point offered her teachers double their salaries (well into six figures) in exchange for union protection that guaranteed a job for life.

The deal meant that teachers would have to perform their jobs well to keep their jobs, just like all other non-union workers, but would be paid handsomely for their efforts if they demonstrated skill and commitment.

They turned her down.

No one deserves a job for life that is not dependent upon performance. Good teachers who have to carry the load of poorly-performing teachers often agree. So do many young, eager teachers who are the first to be fired or laid off in hard times, due to rules that protect seniority regardless of ability.

Anyone who believes unions have too much power is commonly labeled no friend of local schools. Anyone who questions how public money is being spent is said to be not putting students first.

But supporting education does not mean supporting everything a school board or its superintendent does. And opposing particularly egregious union policies does not mean one is “anti-teacher.”

Union supporters and school board members under the union spell get mileage by perpetuating these false links.

In fact, a case can be made that those who support the status quo are the real ones who erect roadblocks to improvements in the quality of education.

More and more people are discovering that the strongest advocates for much-needed education reform are those who respect the hard work of excellent teachers, are suspicious of non-negotiable union rules, are mindful of the way taxpayer money is spent, and support school board members who refuse to play politics with student learning.

It will be Democrats’ undoing if they continue to blindly support teachers unions. And it will be Republicans’ undoing if they don’t stop supporting radical conservatives with 18th-century notions about science, health, free speech and civil rights.

Finding school board candidates who pay attention to the bottom line and oppose traditional union sacred cows like seniority rights and tenure, but who don’t carry a conservative social agenda into the classroom, is the challenge. If you find one, glom on.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at