Education Matters: San Dieguito’s special relationship with its teachers union

With the retirement of San Dieguito Faculty Association (SDFA) teachers union president Bob Croft this June 30, after 37 years in the San Dieguito Union High School District, SDUHSD has an opportunity to embark in a new direction.

Every year since 2010, Croft – whose salary is $125,797 – has not taught in the classroom. In addition, the district provides him with free office space to carry out his union duties.

Torrie Norton, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of human resources, confirmed that Croft does not teach, is paid a full teachers’ salary, and is given free office space at Earl Warren Middle School.

She said a substitute teacher has been hired each year since 2010 to teach Croft’s physical education classes.

This arrangement was formalized in the 2010 certificated master contract which was approved by the board on April 15, 2010, she said.

According to Norton, “Croft was gradually released from his regular teaching duties starting with the 2009-10 school year for the purposes of collaboration and employee/district problem solving and mutual interest resolution.”

Said Norton in an email, “It is not a requirement, but has been the option agreed to in recent years. Every year it is mutually agreed upon between the superintendent and SDFA during the staffing process.”

SDUHSD’s contract entitles the union president to this benefit as long as the district’s superintendent agrees to this arrangement.

What if the superintendent and SDFA president don’t agree?

“If it is not mutually agreed, then it is not implemented,” Norton said, which leaves the door open for a different sort of arrangement with the next union leader.

Norton said it is “not uncommon” for school districts to have this kind of agreement.

Other districts

Despite this claim, paying a full salary to a union president and relieving him or her from teaching responsibilities is actually quite uncommon at other local school districts.

Said Terry Decker, superintendent of the K-6 Solana Beach School District, “The president of the teachers’ union is a full-time teacher. We do not provide office space.”

Said Holly McClurg, superintendent of the K-6 Del Mar Union School District, “The lead of the teachers’ union teaches full time. He is not provided free office space.”

Said David Jaffe, superintendent of the K-8 Rancho Santa Fe School District, “She is a full time teacher and has no office space.”

Said Tim Baird, superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District, “Our union president is a full-time teacher. She does have some release days in our contract to conduct union business but she seldom uses them. She does not have office space for union business.”

Even the larger school districts that serve students from kindergarten through 12th grade have no arrangement as generous as San Dieguito’s, which serves students in grades 7-12.

From Rick Grove, an assistant superintendent of the Carlsbad Unified School District, “Our teachers union president teaches a 40% schedule. We do not provide office space to either labor union.”

He added, “The teachers union reimburses the district for all costs associated with the temporary teacher hired to fill the resulting 60% vacancy.”

At the Oceanside Unified School District, the contract states that the district “will pay 100 percent of the salary of the Association president.” But the next clause states that “annually after the year of service, the OTA [Oceanside Teachers Association] will reimburse the district for 100 percent of the salary….”

From the Poway Unified School District, the communications director wrote in an email that the teachers union president has office space outside the district and “is on full time release.” The district pays her salary, she said, “but then the union reimburses the district part of that.”

According to San Dieguito’s current teachers contract, Article 13.01-E states that the San Dieguito Faculty Association shall reimburse the district one-sixth of the total compensation twice a year.

But Norton said there is no reimbursement. Nor does the union reimburse the district for the cost of hiring a substitute teacher to teach Croft’s classes, which has cost the district over $124,000 since 2010.

Election campaign

Two years ago, SDUHSD board member John Salazar wrote to then-superintendent Rick Schmitt, saying, “Stop the insanity and have the union head (Bob Croft) either work as a teacher or have his salary 100% (including benefits) reimbursed to the district by the union. He uses taxpayer money (his salary) to influence campaigns and spread untruths about people (me).”

The campaign the union waged against Salazar and fellow board member Mo Muir last year, to get board members Joyce Dalessandro and Beth Hergesheimer re-elected, was unlike anything the district has seen in decades.

But Croft was simply doing what any other responsible union leader would do: work to elect school board members sympathetic to union causes. One might question the tactics, but they were ultimately successful in helping the two incumbents win re-election.

When asked why orchestrate an attack against two board members who weren’t up for election, he said it would be dangerous if Muir and Salazar were joined on the board by an ally.

Croft admitted that his approach during the campaign was more adversarial than is typical, although he said he prefers the term “more direct.”

In many ways, Croft has been a cooperative partner with the district. For example, he agreed recently that tests and quizzes should be allowed to be sent home for parents to review with their children, against the wishes of some teachers.

SDUHSD’s Norton praised Croft, calling him “fair and collaborative” and said he is “great to work with.” She said she regularly contacts him on district issues, and “might call him four times a day.”

Unions, to be clear, are all about protecting the interests of teachers. Student interests sometimes, but not always, intersect. Croft has been a good union leader for San Dieguito’s teachers.

He has done exactly what union leaders are supposed to do: represent teachers well. Big raises came through, and he saw to it that union allies on the school board were re-elected.

But it’s those perks that the district has historically provided that make San Dieguito’s relationship with its union unique.

A new day is approaching. As the union leadership torch gets passed, the district has an opportunity to re-assess how it plans to do business with the new president.

It will be interesting to see if SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill will choose to break with tradition and scale back its generous union president’s benefits – or to continue past practices.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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