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How Poway Unified Went from Big Happy Family to Family Feud

Poway always attributed its uncommonly friendly atmosphere between teachers and district officials to an equally uncommon approach to the bargaining process. It turns out that process broke labor laws, and unions and new school board members are questioning whether it was so great to begin with.

For years, Poway Unified School District has existed as a kind of educational Never-Neverland: a place where school officials and the teachers union sailed through negotiations, brokering amicable deals that – for the most part – left both sides content even in tough times.

But that all seems to be unraveling.

It turns out that Poway’s successes occurred while the district and teacher’s union were breaking labor laws that require public notice of their contract talks. Now other labor unions are mad, and new school board members – elected to provide more oversight in the wake of a bond-deal blowup – are seeking change.

At the center of the dispute is Superintendent John Collins and the president of the Poway Federation of Teachers, Candy Smiley.

“John and Candy cut up the pie,” said school board member Charlie Sellers, who was elected in November. “The previous board simply rubber-stamped their action and this board is actually questioning their actions and they don’t like it.”

While other districts faced strike threats amid deep state budget cuts, Poway turned to early retirement incentives and left vacated positions vacant, a move that increased class sizes but avoided layoffs. The district also cut days from the work year, which reduced teacher salaries by 2.7 percent in 2009-10, and 4.3 percent in each of the following two school years before the “rollbacks” ended in 2012-13.

Here’s how Smiley described the successful relationship between teachers and the district to VOSD in 2012:

“We can ask any question we want and I have complete confidence that I will get a straight answer and there will be back-up documentation. Pretty soon, you just start building a trust. And when they are honest with me we are honest with them.”

Poway always attributed its uncommonly collaborative atmosphere to an equally uncommon approach to the bargaining process called Interest Based Problem Solving, or IBPS.

The process, used exclusively by district teachers since 2001, consists of year-round discussions through monthly subgroup meetings focused on personnel, learning and fiscal matters and five larger decision-making sessions each year with the district’s top management and union leadership before reaching a final contract agreement.

IBPS also calls for teachers to receive a “fair share” portion of the district’s unrestricted expenditures. The amount, recently set at 56.45 percent, is derived from state and district data, according to union documents, although no details are provided. How it works: In the fall, officials look back at the total amount spent on teacher compensation the past year to see whether it measured up. If it didn’t, teachers are owed the difference the following year. The fair share percentage is also applied to any new unrestricted money the district receives from the state.

The district estimates teachers are owed another 1 percent raise for last year, on top of the 2.5 percent they already received in 2013-14 and a 3 percent raise this school year.

Smiley said she’s asking for raises this year for the district’s 1,600 teachers beyond the usual across-the-board raises because, “We have the money based on our formula.”

But other stakeholders want to see extra money spent on things other than teacher raises.

Nick Lombardo, a 12-year Poway school bus driver and president of the Poway Unified chapter of the local SEIU union, said he’s been pushing for better health coverage for 400 transportation, food, maintenance and custodial workers.

“When they are talking about equitable and fair, this is equitable and fair? They make two-thirds more than we do and their out-of-pocket is less than ours,” Lombardo said. “Things are just not equal and yet everybody is just a big happy family? Well no, we are not. We are tired of it. We are trying to make a living like anybody else.”

The IBPS process became a source of contention and confusion following recent revelations that the district has failed to follow state “sunshine” laws requiring it to publicize its negotiation efforts with the teachers.

Instead, annual teacher contract proposals bypassed public hearings for most of the last decade until final pacts were ready for board approval.

That angered another group of non-teaching employees, whose process did follow the rules.

The Poway School Employees Association felt their negotiations were delayed and budget figures were misrepresented in order to give teachers more revenue this year, so when union officials discovered the legal lapse, they filed a charge with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board on Feb. 27.

In its March 31 response, district officials acknowledged the “unintentional” error and said they’ve fixed the problem by restarting 2014-15 teacher negotiations with all the public notices state law requires. No attorney has been involved in teacher discussions since at least 2001.

“We don’t need attorneys in the room for negotiations. It’s not adversarial,” Smiley told me. She also downplayed the lack of public notice.

“I attend every single board meeting from beginning to end. There is no public there,” she said.

Kimberley Beatty, the new school board president, gave the news more weight.

“It was kind of like the emperor has no clothes,” she said. “They’ve been telling us, and we’ve been believing them, that things are great but then you learn they have this colossal failure.”

While the district remedies its legal labor failures, key stakeholders say the district has reached a turning point in a larger power struggle between a new guard and its old one.

“The teachers are in bed with the school superintendent,” Lombardo said. “Up until now, they had a board that just laid down and did what they told them to do.”

Sellers was one of three new school board members welcomed to the dais in December following a highly charged campaign season in which the district’s maligned $100 million-turned-$1 billion capital appreciation bond deal took center stage.

Sellers and fellow school board member Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff were both endorsed by the classified employee unions and ran on a platform of change and transparency, much like Beatty did in 2012.

The third newcomer, T.J. Zane, executive director of the Republican Party of San Diego County, was endorsed by the teacher’s union and so far has typically voted with the last-standing longtime board member, Andy Patapow.

“There’s clearly a new board in Poway that has a mandate from the community to exercise oversight and not simply defer to the superintendent and that is understandably causing some waves,” said Ricardo Ochoa, an attorney for the Poway School Employees Association.

Smiley, too, pegged the current upheaval on “new board leadership,” although she disagrees the old board rubber-stamped everything. They were “balanced, thoughtful, educated participants,” she said.

It’s unclear exactly when the 2014-15 contract talks will finish so focus can shift to a new teacher contract to replace the one that expires June 30. No teacher contract vote will take place at Monday night’s board meeting.

Still, Poway teachers plan to rally support at the meeting following the launch of their new campaign last week, called “Partnering to Educate Our Students.” The effort comes with a new website and social media plea for support.

“My hope is that our school board will better educate themselves on the IBPS process, that they will trust the process based on our years of experience, that we will get back to the table and finalize our negotiations for this year, settle our contract and protect IBPS,” Smiley said. “That is in the best interest of the school district, the community, to maintain IBPS. That’s the plan.”

But Beatty said her questions about the teacher bargaining process have been “met with wrath.”

“If you challenge the status quo, you will be met with a disproportionate response to stymie that inquiry,” she said.

“As an elected board we are in charge of representing everybody’s interest,” Beatty said. “The whole theory behind IBPS sounds wonderful. Everyone comes together to solve a problem. Who can argue with that? But it goes beyond that, to making decisions about how new monies are spent before other stakeholders weigh in.”

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