After months of grassroots efforts, classified employees of the Solana Beach School District have officially established a labor union.
Formally called the Solana Beach Association of Support Professionals, or SBASP, the district officially recognized the organization in a letter dated March 17.
“It was a long battle,” said Robin Park, an instructional aide in the special education department at Solana Vista School.
Spearheaded by Park, a number of classified staff members expressed interest in forming a labor union after nearly two-dozen employees almost lost their health benefits late last year.
A total of 46 classified employees were eligible for benefits when the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014. In a letter two days before Thanksgiving 2015, 22 of those employees learned that they no longer qualified for health care under the ACA and that their current benefits would end at the close of the year.
A third-party company called Worxtime, an ACA compliance web application, calculated their hours and found that they were not eligible to receive benefits mandated by the ACA guidelines. Although some of the classified employees had worked at least six hours per day, school breaks impacted their totals.
“The 22 employees qualified the year before because when we ran the calculations, we thought that those weeks off shouldn’t be counted. As it turns out, they do count,” Superintendent Terry Decker explained in an interview at the time, adding that the district also calculated the hours. “The Affordable Care Act is built for the corporate world — 52 weeks a year. We have two weeks of winter break. We have a week at Thanksgiving. That time period keeps clocking.”
Several classified employees shared their concerns before the board during the regularly scheduled December meeting, with certificated staff members showing support. Because the issue was not among the board’s agenda items, however, board members could not speak on the subject, according to the Brown Act.
Within days, the district called a special meeting to address the matter, and on Dec. 18, the school board voted unanimously to revise its policies and offer medical insurance for classified employees who regularly work at least six hours per day and 30 hours per week.
“I believe that every difficult situation has a silver lining,” board president Vicki King said at the time. “One of the silver linings in this, among many, is that we, as a board, got to see and believe and feel the passion that you all have for your jobs.
“…It really showed me the passion and how fortunate we are as a district to have not just the teaching staff, but the classified staff that do some of the hardest work for our students and our children.”
Although benefits were reinstated through board policy revisions, the issue had already sparked other concerns among some classified staff. They shared their worries with certificated staff, who put them in touch with a representative from the California Teachers Association, which represents the certificated staff. The 325,000-member California Teachers Association is affiliated with the 3 million-member National Education Association.
Park pointed out that because it is a policy change, the policy could be changed again in the future. For this, and other reasons, classified staff obtained the number of signatures necessary to petition the state’s Public Employment Relations Board to form a union.
Although they gathered enough signatures, the Solana Beach School District objected the group’s petition to form a union three times, Park said.
First, the district asked for a recount. Then the district objected to the “appropriateness” of the union.
“Because they objected to the appropriateness of the union, it kind of gave us an edge,” Park said. “After they objected to the appropriateness of the union, we got more signatures showing more interest. Therefore, it sped the process along because we didn’t need to have an anonymous mail-out ballot vote.”
“That signature gathering has to be 50 percent plus one, or the majority of the people,” added Cynthia Manjarrez, a consultant with the California Teachers Association. “We gathered probably 68 percent. It was substantial.”
Finally, the district requested that supervisory positions not be eligible for membership, of which the group eventually agreed.
“It was inevitable that we were going to be a union because we had all the qualifications, but our district used stall tactics,” Park said.
A total of 219 classified employees are eligible for membership, Manjarrez said, noting that the group is one of the largest chapters for education support professionals in the north coastal area.
“They felt they had no voice,” Manjarrez said. “I think that for any union, the strongest and the biggest benefit is the benefit of speaking collectively.
“One of the reasons the ESP (Education Support Professionals) chose to join forces with CTA is because they were impressed with the services that the teachers received from the California Teachers Association,” she added. “Many of them are very proud of the work they do in serving the students of Solana Beach. They very much consider themselves professionals, and they very much wanted to join the ranks of the teachers.”
Manjarrez does not know the exact number of positons that are not eligible for membership. She said she has requested public information from the district five times since the group initiated the process in the fall, but the district has failed to provide such information.
“They have ignored our request for public information,” said Manjarrez, who is submitting another request for the number of positions and names of the people not being represented.
“Some of those supervisors have contacted us and requested to be part of the union,” she added. “That brings up a whole issue, in terms of what their rights are. Without that information of who they are and what position they hold, we can’t move forward.”
Now that the union is official, initial meetings are being planned for every school site before or after school hours April 11-15, so site representatives can be selected.
“A union is stronger with numbers,” Park said. “At this point, we feel very confident that everybody will become a member. We’re shooting for 100 percent.”
A districtwide meeting for the organization is slated for 7 p.m. April 20 at Skyline, when an election will be held for the group’s president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. A committee will then be established to write the group’s bylaws.
“Representatives will collaborate with their peers on issues, concerns, things that they think would be beneficial, things that are working — the whole shebang,” Park said. “Once we collaborate then we’re going to start negotiating with the district, working together in alliance with the district in good faith and good intentions for the greater purpose of education in our district, not for a good business model and how to save money.”
Among other concerns, classified staff hope to have prep time, professional development, stipends and other benefits like certificated staff, Park said.
“Those are things that people like us would love to have,” he said.
Superintendent Terry Decker said he is looking forward to working with the group.
“We’re looking forward to working with the leadership of the new organization,” Decker said in an email. “We have outstanding classified staff members in our district, and they are integral to the success of our students.”