Release-time: The revolving door between Santa Ana classrooms and union activities

Mark Bucher

In early 2015, Santa Ana school officials quietly signed a deal with union leaders that allowed teachers to leave the classroom in order to lobby for higher pay “on a full-time basis with no loss of pay, seniority, sick leave or benefits.”

The so-called “release-time” agreement, drafted in November 2014 and signed on January 5, 2015, came at the beginning of the Santa Ana Educators Association’s 2015 campaign for higher pay. Within a year of signing the agreement, the union successfully drafted – and union-backed Santa Ana school board members approved – a series of massive pay increases for the teachers union’s most senior members.

The bottom line: Santa Ana taxpayers were paying teachers not to teach but to lobby elected officials for higher pay and benefits.

Santa Ana Unified isn’t unique. As my California Policy Center colleague Larry Sand observed, release-time provisions are common throughout California. “With over a thousand school districts in the state,” he wrote for CPC, “we are talking about serious larceny.”

The SAUSD agreement was among 137 pages sent to the California Policy Center following a state Public Records Act request. The documents show that several teachers were released from classroom teaching to negotiate, lobby or organize – even on behalf of the California Teachers Association, the largest union in the state, and the National Education Association.

“Upon the conclusion” of their union work, the agreement reads, “the released officer will select his/her assignment from all certificated vacant positions available before they are posted” publicly. And lest principals get any sense that they’ll have authority to hire and promote the best teaches, the agreement says, “[N]o interviews will be necessary.”

That Santa Ana Unified is paying teachers not to teach but to lobby for higher pay is bad news for Santa Ana students. The pay increases came despite years of declining student performance – a problem exacerbated when substitutes fill in for teachers released for union work. And those increases came with warnings from district finance staff: along with falling student enrollment, the increases would likely create a financial crisis.

That crisis has come. Last month, faced with a budget deficit, the school board majority, backed by the very union leaders who lobbied for the pay hike, voted to layoff 287 new teachers, about 10 percent of the district’s teachers.

Why would the teacher’s union treat Santa Ana students and new teachers so callously? Consider former teacher and Santa Ana Educators Association president Barbara Pearson. In union communications, she celebrates herself as the architect of the 2015 pay hike. Pearson does not mention that she earns $20,000 more per year as a direct result of the deal, or that district taxpayers pay her not to teach.

A union boss who can persuade elected officials to pay her union salary and the salaries of other union leaders is clearly no mere mortal. Pearson has worked just as energetically to blame others for the Santa Ana meltdown. She has blamed district officials, poverty, demographic trends and high-performing charter schools like El Sol and Orange County School of the Arts.

Remarkably, she has even blamed Cecilia Iglesias, the one school board member who voted against the 2015 pay increase and the single member who opposed last month’s teacher layoff.

The recently released documents reveal the revolving door between unions and Santa Ana’s schools, where 90 percent of schools fail to meet basic state and federal standards. In the end, we’re left with this image: union leaders took teachers out of the classroom to lobby for higher pay, leaving their classrooms in the hands of substitutes.

And those documents offer the best explanation we have for the failure: the Santa Ana school district doesn’t exist to serve students, their parents, teachers and the community. It exists to enhance the power of union leaders like Barbara Pearson.

There’s no need to abandon all hope for those who enter here. Citizen activists can use the California Public Records Act to ask school district officials for all documents regarding release time for any members of unions representing district employees, including teachers. Write up your own study of this practice and let us know what you find.

Another way: “open collective bargaining negotiations to the public,” Sand writes. “That kind of sunlight would go a long way toward disinfecting wounds inflicted by unions and compliant school board members.”

Mark Bucher is CEO of California Policy Center.

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