By Marsha Sutton
As teachers’ unions across the state geared up for the “State of Emergency Week of Action” May 9 to 13 to protest state cuts in education funding, local parent Michael Robertson was fighting a different sort of battle.
Robertson charged that the Del Mar Union School District misused public resources – including telecommunications equipment, computer servers, school property, supplies, copiers and school databases – to improperly advocate for political positions.
“DMUSD is using school resources in an attempt to influence politics which is wrong,” he said in an email, citing a robo-call from the district’s superintendent “pleading that I join a protest to ‘protect our kids.’”
In addition to the automated phone call, he offered as further evidence an email addressed to “Del Mar Hills families” from the Del Mar Hills Elementary School PTA president which read in part: “During the week of May 9 through May 13, the teachers, administrators, school board and parents of the DMUSD will jointly participate in activities to focus attention on California’s ‘State of Emergency.’ The purpose is to raise awareness of the serious cuts facing education and to pressure California legislators to return funding priority to our schools.”
The email asked parents to meet in the teachers’ lounge on May 9 and make calls during lunchtime to legislators, “urging them to support tax extensions, preventing deeper cuts to California public schools.” Lunch, she wrote, will be served.
Fuming, Robertson claims the DMUSD is violating the law, citing California Education Code section 7054 which prohibits school districts from engaging in political advocacy using public resources.
Section 7054(a) reads that no school district funds, services, supplies or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate.
However, 7054 goes on to say that nothing shall prohibit the use of public resources as long as the activities are authorized by the Constitution or California law and “the information provided constitutes a fair and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or ballot measure.”
Section 7054(c) states that any violation of this section shall be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by imprisonment or a fine, or both.
Whether or not Del Mar (or any other California school district for that matter, as many of them engaged in similar actions) violated 7054 of the Calif. Education Code is debatable.
Technically, the district’s efforts did not urge the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate, as prohibited in 7054, but it may have advocated for a particular political position. Here is the full text of the automated call:
“Hi, this is Superintendent Jim Peabody calling with an important message about budget issues facing the Del Mar Union School District and ALL California schools. School districts throughout California are suffering while we continue to wait for a state budget. Our schools and communities cannot tolerate any more budget cuts nor can we afford to continuing [sic] waiting for a state budget.
“During the week of May 9-13, all educators, parents and students in the state are fighting back with a grassroots campaign calling on lawmakers to resolve the state budget crisis now. Look for our Del Mar teachers, administrators, parents and board members at your children’s school – they will have important messages about what YOU can do to help.”
Peabody responded to Robertson’s complaint in a May 9 email, saying the district’s intent was “to provide fair and impartial information to parents about the budget, not to take political action.” But he also agreed not to send any more messages asking for action, writing, “I can see that asking the legislature to pass a budget on time may be considered a political action.”
“I saw zero fair or impartial information going to parents,” wrote Robertson to Peabody, about the week-long campaign. “What I saw was very biased screams of ‘No more cuts’ and ‘Protect our kids.’ How is that distributing facts? The intent was to push for higher taxes.”
Threatening litigation, Robertson wrote, “It is a serious breach of the public trust when government officials spend public funds to create an advantage for one side of a political campaign.” He demanded that the district “immediately cease using its funds, school property, personnel, supplies or equipment to influence the political process.”
In addition, Robertson asked the district, through a Public Records Act request, to provide all communications since March 1 between the California Teachers Association, which sponsored the week-long “State of Emergency” effort, and the district and all its employees. And he promises to release the information publicly on his Web site (www.michaelrobertson.com).
When asked for reaction to Robertson’s charges of illegal activity, Peabody wrote in an email, “After some thought, I have no response to Mr. Robertson’s comments” – although he did add the following: “I don’t believe the district did anything wrong.”
The union agenda
The initiatives at individual schools and school districts during the week of May 9-13 clearly pushed for parents to support the CTA union agenda and lobby lawmakers for more funding for education. But does the CTA’s agenda always coincide with what’s best for kids?
As Robertson said, “It’s not about protecting our kids but about protecting employee salaries and benefits.”
He claims that DMUSD employee salaries make up about 85 percent of the entire budget for this year and that the district “now spends more than $10,000 per student – a number that has grown every year for the last six years.”
Not that long ago, school employee salaries and benefits in the county were about 80 percent of a district’s budget, but that percentage has consistently grown. At the San Diego Unified School District, the largest in the county, employee wages and benefits are said to be a staggering 93 percent of the district’s operating budget.
Clearly, funding to schools has risen over the years, but the money spent on increased compensation packages has not correlated to improved student achievement.
CTA flyers handed out at schools propagate the false impression that the union represents student interests, and parents are being hoodwinked by deceptive rhetoric. We need more money for education, yes, but we don’t need more money for education so teachers can receive higher salaries and benefits.
Robertson said the CTA “is a union whose sole purpose is to get as much money for their members for as little work as possible. I don’t fault them for their efforts, that’s what they are paid to do; but the school district should not be their mouthpiece.” The CTA he says, does not represent kids or parents, “regardless of what their literature claims.”
The union fights for the rights of its members, and students are not members. Neither are parents.
This doesn’t mean the state should not allocate more funding for education. It should, and legislators need to make public K-12 education a priority. But the money must be funneled directly to programs that benefit students, because ever-higher compensation has not proven to address the chronic problems in our schools.
Attacking seniority rights
The CTA recently sent a notice to its union members, including local teachers, alerting them to three proposed bills that “attack teachers directly,” with tips on how to present the bills to their communities to fight passage.
One bill, SB-355, takes on seniority rights by allowing districts the needed flexibility to consider other factors besides years of service when deciding who shall be terminated, including performance evaluations.
But the CTA says SB-355 “would allow administrators to practice favoritism under the guise of ‘keeping the best.’ It would gut one of the most important protections that helps ensure academic freedom and allows students to learn from experienced teachers.”
Then there’s SB-871 which would prohibit salary increases for employees in a school district that reduces its instructional minutes or shortens its school year, which the state has shamefully now allowed districts to do to save money.
The CTA describes this bill as “a full-on attack on collective bargaining and local control.” Even as teachers work fewer days, they still deserve increased teacher compensation? But the union does not object to fewer school days, knowing full well that the amount of time students spend in school is directly related to improved learning.
“The real problem in our schools,” the CTA claims, “is not seniority protections or teacher pay. It’s the chronic underfunding that has provoked a fiscal crisis and is threatening our students’ education.”
“It is vital that the cuts are stopped …,” the CTA notice states. “Reducing teacher protections in the guise of ‘cutting costs’ will make things even worse.”
The CTA says these bills “would foster discrimination and favoritism” and “would move California in the opposite direction of proven reforms that are helping our students and schools.” Proven reforms that are working? Really?
But, as one teacher recently wrote in an email to Robertson, “I think if I do my job as I would have to at any other business, I don’t need this protection or seniority to save me. My work as a teacher should speak for itself.” Amen to that.
Whether Del Mar has overstepped its bounds in its enthusiastic embrace of the CTA agenda may be under scrutiny, but the important question is why so many parents continue to support the CTA agenda.
Just because the teachers’ union wants something doesn’t mean parents should. Fight for more money definitely, but let’s first make sure that money gets where it needs to go.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at: SuttComm@san.rr.com.