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The Learning Curve: What it Would Take for San Diego Teachers to Strike

As Los Angeles teachers prepare to strike, we spoke with current and former San Diego Unified stakeholders about its most recent strike, back when “Friends” was on TV and “Macarena” was No. 1 on the charts.

Thousands of teachers, students and union allies marched through downtown Los Angeles ahead of a possible strike. / Image via Shutterstock

Happy New Year, Learning Curve friends. I missed you all and hope everyone is feeling recharged after the break. I can tell you who isn’t: the entire education establishment of Los Angeles.

L.A. teachers are poised to strike on Monday. They want 6.5 percent raises, and they want more counselors, nurses and librarians for their overburdened schools. Their aim is no doubt worthy, but a teacher strike causes the utmost disturbance to everyone involved, teachers and families. And while they may lead to ultimately better relationships between the community, the governing board and teachers, they also require much healing.

All this got me wondering: When was the last San Diego Unified teacher strike and how likely would it be for one to happen again? (San Ysidro and Alpine teachers went on strike in recent years and National City came very close.)

To find the last San Diego teacher strike, I had to dig back to a simpler time: “Friends” and “Seinfeld” were both on the air; America was not at war and “Macarena” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts. My seventh grade friends and I were simultaneously too cool for it and danced it all the time. It was perhaps an early warning of hipster irony. It was definitely 1996.

The San Diego teacher strike lasted an incredibly stressful five days in February. San Diego teachers, at the time, got paid considerably less than teachers in Los Angeles, and they were very mad about it, according to the Los Angeles Times. The strike ended with teachers getting a whopping 14.7 percent pay increase.

The superintendent at the time was Bertha Pendleton, both the first woman and black educator to hold the job in San Diego. (She had also worked in the district during the previous strike, which happened in 1977.) I called her up to find out what the strike meant to her and the district. It fell toward the middle of her five-year tenure and she told me that it was, without a doubt, the most difficult problem she faced.

BP: Strikes are always bad. You do everything you possibly can to avoid them. But sometimes it just seems inevitable. Sometimes the circumstance don’t allow you to get beyond it. I remember it was a time when we had issues regarding funds [and teacher pay.] At the same time, there was a big effort to raise standards and do a very strong job with students.

It was certainly the least enjoyable time for me. I’ve always prided myself on being able to have good personal relationships and really was proud of our relationships within the district and among staff. It was something that hurt.

I hope [Los Angeles] finds an answer. I don’t wish it on anyone.

Pendleton was in the middle of the storm. She had the union trying to break down her door to get their demands met. She also answered to politicians on the Board of Education, whose jobs were on the line and who didn’t think they could meet the demands. And she had parents blowing up her office daily, demanding their kids return to a normal schedule.

“The subs were just there playing cards with us and watching movies and talk shows on television,” a senior at Clairemont High School told the Times.

Strikes have several lasting impacts, Pendleton told me. One, of course, is that a new, and potentially better, contract goes into effect. But communities also have to take time and devote resources to healing the wounds of the strike.

BP: It was a great relief that it was over. Relief on both sides, I think.

Before the strike, we used to have separate meetings for teachers and counselors and administrators at the beginning of the year. But when we came back the next year, we had a big meeting all together to have a show of unity and to acknowledge it isn’t a kind of pleasant thing we went through. There’s issues we all would not like to see again, and let’s go forward as strongly as we can. That was not just a show. I believe it had meaning because we tried to have that spirit in a lot of things we did going forward.

We all needed to try to put this behind us and be as forgiving as we can of the other person. Don’t have all these bad feelings. But pull together and try to do our best.

I put out calls to several administrators who were around during the ‘96 strike and also managed to track down Raymond Williams, who served as assistant superintendent of human resources at the time. For him, the strike was not as memorable.

RW: Did they actually strike? I don’t remember.

Williams had forgotten about the San Diego strike, because from his perspective it had been relatively tame. He had already been through two strikes in Milwaukee that got far more vicious.

RW: When I came here I found the teacher’s union was much more receptive to sitting down and talking and reaching a compromise and a decision that would benefit both sides.

The [Milwaukee strikes] were bad in the sense that there were a couple instances of people getting pushed around and actual damage done. I had all the tires cut on my car one time.

As an administrator in Milwaukee, Williams’ task was to cross picket lines every day and make sure that kids were still getting an education.

RW: I guess I had to cross I would say eight or nine picket lines. And that’s rough. Because they all knew who I was. They gave me a hard time. Nothing physical, but I took a lot of verbal stuff in that strike. One of the last days I went out to a school that was out on the edges of the district. I crossed the picket line and got harrased, of course. It was kind of funny. I had tried to park my car two or three blocks from school, but I guess they saw me. I came back and all four of my tires were cut.

Ah, the good old days of labor. OK, so back to San Diego. (Sorry, that story was too good not to tell.) I talked to San Diego Unified Trustee Richard Barrera, who has been through five contract negotiations in his 11 years on the board, about whether a strike might ever happen here.

RB: We haven’t had a strike in a long time in San Diego, but I would say every contract negotiation we have is really hard. It comes down to the wire a lot. It’s really tough finding solutions because of the fact schools don’t have enough money in California. That’s true in L.A. and that’s true here. I think the idea that we would never see a strike in San Diego is not realistic.

Barrera until recently served as secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 135, so it’s not a shock that he’d say that. But he’s also backed up by research on this notion of schools being underfunded. A Stanford University study last year found that the state needs to increase spending by $25.6 billion, or roughly 38 percent, per year to adequately fund education.

Los Angeles and San Diego are very different, but also similar. They’re both big-city districts with significant portions of low-income students. But Los Angeles is even bigger and has an even higher percentage of poverty. For teachers who feel under-resourced, that’s obviously a very challenging work environment.

There is one perhaps even bigger difference, which Barrera also noted. The San Diego Unified board is more in alignment philosophically with the unions than Los Angeles’ board, where some board members are backed by charter school advocates.

RB: There is an overlay in the negotiation issues where two sides are suspicious and teachers [in Los Angeles] may feel like the district is on the path to privatize education. There is less tension and more alignment here. But we have the same issues over money. People always say we have a union-backed board, but every spring we have a really big fight [with the teachers] over resources.

New State Superintendent, New State Board of Education

Micheal Kirst stepped down this week before his term ended as president of the State Board of Education. Kirst wanted to give Gov. Gavin Newsom a chance to appoint his own hand-picked successor to the board. The appointed position of president of the state board, which sets education policy, is arguably more influential than the elected position of superintendent. Kirst had served on the board in Gov. Jerry Brown’s first eight years as governor, and his last eight years.

Tony Thurmond was sworn in Monday as the new state superintendent of public instruction. He won a bitter and close race against Marshall Tuck. Tuck was backed by many charter school advocates and Thurmond was strongly backed by teachers’ unions. “I could have ended up in state prison. Instead I ended up as state superintendent of public instruction. That is why it is so important to break the school-to-prison pipeline,” Thurmond said during the swearing-in, according to Edsource.

My Work

  • Before Christmas, but since our last newsletter, the drama in Sweetwater Union High School District has continued – and I mean that pretty much literally. The chief officer of the state’s fiscal crisis agency issued a damning report at a board meeting in December. He pointed to more than 300 manual entries in the district’s financial system that were designed to make the budget look much better than it was. “That my friends and colleagues, is a cover-up,” he said, eliciting an audible gasp from board members and others in the room.
  • After that, the San Diego County Office of Education effectively gutted the power of the local board.
  • And you may have noticed too that VOSD’s intern Kayla Jimenez has not been messing around lately. She uncovered the story of a teacher who allegedly abused a student and harassed coworkers in the public education system. The teacher’s credential got revoked for his behavior. But then he found work in a private school where no credential was required. After her report, the teacher and his boss were forced to resign. She’ll be on the lookout for work in the near future, so if you’re an editor in search of a tenacious reporter, you should give her a shout.
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