Here's why the San Diego teachers union isn't thinking of striking like L.A. teachers are

Some of the issues that are driving Los Angeles Unified teachers to strike next week apply to San Diego Unified schools too.

Like L.A. Unified, San Diego Unified schools have fewer resources than they once did, such as support staff. More than half of San Diego Unified’s schools have a district-funded school nurse present only one day a week, according to the district’s formulas that assign nurses to schools based on enrollment. San Diego Unified gives high schools one counselor for every 459 students while it gives no elementary school a counselor for more than three days a week.

But despite this, San Diego Unified doesn’t have quite the same factors that are motivating teachers to strike in Los Angeles. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s because San Diego Unified has a school board that has been friendly to unions, for better or worse.

On Friday, leaders from the teachers unions for San Diego Unified, Chula Vista Elementary and Sweetwater Union High School Districts announced their support for the L.A. Unified teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The organization of more than 35,000 teachers and other school employees is expected to launch the largest strike yet seen in a recent wave of teacher activism.

The San Diego Education Association represents more than 7,000 educators in the San Diego Unified School District. San Diego Unified enrolled about 104,000 students last school year in district-run schools versus roughly 467,000 students in L.A. Unified-run schools.

In the union’s most recent bargaining negotiations that finished in April, the union got a 2 percent pay increase for teachers for this school year and an additional 1 percent payment. San Diego Unified’s current starting teacher salary is $46,600.

The L.A. teachers are striking about issues of a lack of staff and resources, which public schools are dealing with across the country. But Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association, attributes the strike to what she says is a disconnect between L.A. Unified's school board and superintendent and teachers.

Los Angeles' and San Diego’s superintendents come from different worlds. L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner was a former investment banker who had no experience running a school or school system, while San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten was a district principal and teacher with 25 years of education experience.

L.A. Unified School Board members said they chose Beutner, an outsider, because they wanted to break from the status quo.

“We need new, creative solutions to tackle old, seemingly intractable problems. Austin Beutner is the right person at this time to help us forge a new path for success in a climate of financial uncertainty, pervasive achievement gaps and severe underfunding of our public schools,” L.A. Unified School Board member Nick Melvoin said at the time of Beutner’s hiring, according to a district statement. “To ensure success for our kids, adults must acknowledge that the status quo is not working,” Melvoin said.

Marten, on the other hand, was a district insider. Meanwhile, all of San Diego Unified’s school board trustees have strong ties to traditional public schools or unions. Trustee Kevin Beiser is a teacher in the Sweetwater Union High School District, while Trustees Michael McQuary, Sharon Whitehurst-Payne and John Lee Evans are all former public education teachers. The fifth trustee, Richard Barrera, has been active with the United Commercial and Food Workers Union Local 135.

“I just think that we have the attitude that we need to work together,” said Whitehurst-Payne, who is the school board president.

Still, Borden said the board has not always agreed with the union, adding that the union has gone to impasse with the board in its last two rounds of bargaining. The union wants smaller class sizes and more counselors, nurses and librarians for schools.

Keeping teachers unions happy with frequent pay raises and other benefits helps protect school districts against teacher strikes. But some say that catering too much to unions is driving districts like San Diego Unified into financial ruin.

“They pretty much are kind of walking in lock-step with what the unions want,” said Tom Keliinoi, a former Qualcomm executive who ran unsuccessfully for a spot on the school board last year. “It’s a very powerful internal organization in my view. When you see an automatic 2 percent increase just for showing up, it’s an indication that something’s wrong. They don’t push back. They’re running into a deficit.”

The San Diego Unified board approved pay raises for teachers at the same time it’s facing declining enrollment, which means declining revenue, and increasing pension costs being handed down by the state. The district expects to have to make $37 million in cuts next school year and $73 million in cuts the following year in order to make ends meet.

Two business professionals — Marcia Nordstrom, a real estate broker, and Keliinoi, who also sits on the board of Elevate Elementary Charter School — were the only challengers in November’s school board election for San Diego Unified. Both ran on the idea that San Diego Unified’s board needs a change in the status quo and is lacking needed business voices, as the district faces financial problems.

“If you look at the unfunded pensions, that's causing the deficit each year that they recognize but they don’t have an answer for. It’s creating a perfect storm that at some point, it’s unsustainable,” Keliinoi said. “What’s going to give? Salaries aren’t giving. What’s going on? We’re not talking about that. We’re praising ourselves for a 91 percent graduation rate.”

Board trustees spoke of the pressure they feel to keep San Diego Unified teacher salaries competitive with those of other school districts in the county and to pay teachers enough to afford San Diego’s high cost of living.

“Obviously we want to get the best teachers, we’ve been more competitive lately in terms of that,” Trustee Evans said. “But we certainly haven’t been overly generous and the unions have certainly not gotten anywhere near what they want.”

Whitehurst-Payne said she doesn’t think the board is necessarily trying to please the teachers union.

“I don’t think about it in terms of keeping the teachers union happy,” Whitehurst-Payne said. “I think about it more in terms of, this board has spelled out what its priorities are in terms of student achievement and where we want to see this district going. We recognize that the teachers are a big partner in that process.”

Kristen Taketa

Email: kristen.taketa@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @Kristen_Taketa

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