Challenges facing S.F. teachers

April 22, 2009

Andy Libson, a teacher in San Francisco, asks whether his union leadership is up to the task of fighting state budget cuts in education.

IT WAS one step forward, one step backward for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) last week. The union mobilized to overturn some layoffs, but failed to oppose a state ballot measure that would impose austerity in the schools and across the public sector.

The fight over layoffs showed the potential to organize for fully funded schools with decent class sizes. UESF successfully beat back an attempt by San Francisco School Superintendent Carlos Garcia to lay off dozens of paraprofessionals to make up for San Francisco's budget shortfall.

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) had already planned to lay off more than 50 "core" and site-support substitutes who are desperately needed to fill the gap in schools where substitutes are reluctant to teach. The layoff announcement came only weeks after $24 million in so-called "rainy day" funds had been released to save educators' jobs. After receiving that money, the district rescinded 400 layoff notices to teachers.

The attack on paraprofessionals and substitutes is a classic divide-and-conquer tactic, aimed at groups the UESF has historically done a poor job defending. This time, it was different. UESF organized a rally and march to go to the Board of Education and demand that these layoffs of paraprofessionals not go forward.

UESF members march at the May Day demonstration for immigrant rights in 2008
UESF members march at the May Day demonstration for immigrant rights in 2008 (Steve Rhodes)

The rally was modest in size, with just over 50 participants. Still, all the protesters flooded the front seats of the boardroom and chanted, "No more layoffs! Defend para jobs!"

UESF President Dennis Kelly spoke first, pointing out that the cuts were wrong and made no fiscal sense. He noted that if the paras lost their jobs, many would require a 60 percent COBRA contribution from the district--money that would come directly out of stimulus funds that SFUSD is set to receive from the federal government. Other members of the UESF leadership spoke well about the impact on classrooms and students to losing valuable support in the schools.

To its credit, the Board of Education voted 5-2 to not go forward with the proposed cuts. Superintendent Garcia left fuming, saying, "Well, the cuts will have to come from some place else, then." To which crowd of educators responded, "That's right!"

Afterward, UESF declared victory and called a rally for the next Board of Education meeting on April 28 to oppose the increase in class size of K-3 classes in San Francisco elementary schools. All educators should turn out for this important rally.

BLOCKING THE layoffs of subs and paras was a significant victory--and a major step forward for our union. Unfortunately, the very next day at the UESF Assembly, our union took a big step backward.

At the Assembly, members of Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU, a reform caucus running in opposition to the current leadership in upcoming UESF elections) brought forward a resolution urging UESF to take a position in opposition to Proposition 1A in the upcoming May 19 special election in California.

Proposition 1A is attempt by California conservatives, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to cap government spending and give the governor a freer hand to make midyear spending cuts. Under the cover of creating a "rainy day fund," conservatives are seeking to permanently enshrine austerity into the California budget for all public-sector workers.

It would seem a no-brainer that public school educators would oppose such a proposition. Unfortunately, the California Teachers Association (CTA) has actually come out in support of Proposition 1A. That's because the ballot will include another measure, Proposition 1B, that will allow the reallocation of more than $9 billion to California schools as the state budget outlook improves. Essentially, this is a bribe to public educators' unions to support what is essentially a right-wing ballot initiative.

The California Federation of Teachers and a host of other unions have come out squarely opposed to both propositions. Those of us in EDU believe UESF should also oppose 1A and 1B. We reject the CTA's position, which chooses partnership with politicians and school districts over a real stand to protect public education alongside our real allies, other public-sector unions.

But UESF President Kelly argued that the resolution shouldn't be debated by our union's Assembly, because the issue hadn't first been considered by the executive board.

This was nonsense. Plenty of resolutions have been considered and voted on by the Assembly without prior approval by the board. We had, in fact, voted on one that very day. The real issue is that Kelly doesn't want to take a position in opposition to the CTA for fear of angering the powerful statewide union.

Kelly urged the Assembly to put off a vote and allow a discussion of the issue by the Executive Board, and then have a vote by the Assembly next month. What he failed to mention is that the vote would come only five days before the special election, making UESF's position largely irrelevant.

Unfortunately, many Assembly members who are part of Kelly's Progressive Leadership Caucus, supported his conservative approach. As a result, members of EDU will have to once again raise the resolution at the next executive board meeting and fight for a hearing there.

UESF's mixed results last week underscore the reasons why EDU is running to replace the existing union leadership.

EDU has criticized the current leadership for not doing enough to defend paraprofessionals and leaving them out in the cold in a San Francisco resolution that raised teacher's pay. The current leadership clearly felt the need to make a public response and show their commitment to paras. The UESF leadership has also been more communicative with its members of late. This is a welcome change, and a direct result of criticism raised by EDU.

But the stand taken by President Kelly and his desire to cut off debate on Propositions 1A and 1B--all to avoid embarrassing the CTA--is a perfect example of the kind of hesitant and accommodating leadership we cannot afford. CTA is wrong, and Dennis Kelly knows it.

If our union leadership cannot even take a stand against CTA, can it take a stand against our real opponents, like Superintendent Garcia or Gov. Schwarzenegger? Can such a leadership take the risks required to fight for fully funded public education in conjunction with other public-sector unions?

The answer is no. That's why UESF members should vote for EDU in the upcoming elections.

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