School officials in California’s sixth-largest school district are working overtime to promote a massive $1.2 billion bond tentatively scheduled for a districtwide vote in November. Yet behind their chatter about improving Santa Ana Unified facilities is a stark fact: Student enrollment there has been falling steadily for over 15 years. And declining enrollment means declining revenue from federal, state and local sources – about $10,000 per student. But at the same time, district spending, particularly on teacher salaries and benefits, has been rising. Where those two trends intersect – falling revenue, rising costs– is crisis.
Just last summer, the crisis claimed its first victims when the district declared it would have to lay off 287 teachers. The same teacher’s union that had pushed for the pay increases that precipitated the crisis helpfully provided district officials with the hit list – all of it based on one metric only: the last hired were the first fired.
But the crisis didn’t begin in 2017. An SAUSD demographer’s 2016 report illustrates a steady decline in SAUSD enrollment starting in 2003. That year, total student enrollment was 60,973. By 2012, enrollment had fallen to 53,493. This equates to an approximately 12% drop in enrollment and a $75 million loss in revenue. Long-range projections through this school year predict that the decline will continue.
As recently as June 26th — school trustees backed by the powerful teaches union approved regular annual salary increases. In addition to this most recent salary increase, teacher salaries were also raised from 2013-2015.
Losing cash, union-backed trustees ordered district staff to find a solution. Facilities maintenance was delayed. Major renovations were impossible. And so they settled on the November bond.
A bond is basically an IOU — the district’s promise that it will repay Wall Street lenders interest on a multi-million-dollar loan. District officials first pegged the amount of the loan at $479 million – enough, they said, to repair damage created by time and mismanagement. But in the past few weeks the amount of the bond has fluctuated from $518 million back down to $232 million. Neither figure includes interest payments on the loan, which will more than double its cost.
Santa Ana Unified hasn’t even finished paying off two existing loans, from 1999 and 2008. They should be paid off by 2040. By that time, last month’s graduates will be about 40 years old, some with children of their own attending Santa Ana schools that will boast well-paid adults, falling test scores, failing infrastructure – and perhaps still laboring beneath hundreds of millions of dollars in repayments on the Great Bond of 2018.
Kelly McGee is a Rhodes College graduate and a journalism intern at California Policy Center.
“A public employer shall provide all public employees an orientation and shall permit the exclusive representative, if applicable, to participate.”
– Excerpt from California State Assembly Bill AB 52, December 2016
In plain English, AB 52 requires every local government agency in California to bring union representatives into contact with every new hire, to “allow workers the opportunity to hear from their union about their contractual rights and benefits.” What’s this all about?
As explained by Adam Ashton, writing for the Sacramento Bee, “New California government workers will hear from union representatives almost as soon as they start their jobs under a state budget provision bolstering labor groups as they prepare for court decisions that may cut into their membership and revenue.”
Ashton is referring to the case set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court early next year, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. A ruling is expected by mid-year. It is possible, if not likely, that the ruling will change the rules governing public sector union membership. In pro-union states like California, public sector workers are required to pay “agency fees,” which constitute the vast majority of union revenue, even if they laboriously opt-out of paying that portion of union dues that are used explicitly for political campaigning and lobbying.
Needless to say, this law is designed to allow union representatives to get to newly hired public employees as soon as they walk in the door, in order to convince them to join the union and pay those dues. But can anyone argue against union membership?
The short answer is no. To deter such shenanigans, SB 285, thoughtfully introduced by Senator Atkins (D-San Diego), adds the following section to the Government Code: “A public employer shall not deter or discourage public employees from becoming or remaining members of an employee organization.” Governor Brown signed this legislation on October 9th. So much for equal time.
So what can local elected officials do, those among them who actually want to do their part to attenuate the torrent of taxpayer funded dues pouring into the coffers of public employee unions in California? Can they provide the contact information for public employees to outside groups who may be able to provide equal time?
Once again, the answer is no. To deter access even to the agency emails of public employees, a new law bans public agencies from releasing the personal email addresses of government workers, creating a new exemption in the California Public Records Act. Those email addresses could be used by union reformers to provide the facts to public employees. How this all became law provides another example of just how powerful public sector unions are in Sacramento.
In order to quickly get the primary provision of AB 52 enacted, which allows union representatives into new public employee orientations, along with a provision to deny public access to public employee emails, both were added at the last minute to the California Legislature’s 2017-2018 budget trailer bill, AB 119. The union access to new employee orientations is Article 1. The denial of email access is Article 2.
So how are the unions preparing for the Janus ruling? By (1) making sure the union operatives get to new employees as soon as they begin working, (2) by preventing agency employers from saying anything to deter new employees from joining the unions, and (3) by preventing anyone else from getting the official agency emails for new employees in order to inform them of their rights to not join a union. That’s a lot.
So what can you do, if union reformers control a majority on your agency board or city council, and you in a position to try to oppose these unions?
First, examine the legal opinions surrounding the wording of SB 285, “A public employer shall not deter or discourage public employees from becoming or remaining members of an employee organization.” The words “deter” and “discourage” do not in any way preclude providing facts. Consider this preliminary opinion posted on the website of the union-controlled Public Employee Relations Board:
“One major concern I have is that the terms “deter” and “discourage” are not defined. What if an employee comes to an employer with questions about what it means to be a member of the union, and the employer provides truthful responses. For example, assume that the employer confirms that being a member will mean paying dues. What if that has the effect of deterring or discouraging the employee from joining the union?”
It is possible for employers to present facts regarding union membership without violating the new law. Find out what disclosures remain permissible, and make sure new employees get the information.
Another step that can be taken, although probably not by local elected officials, is to challenge the new law that exempts public agency emails from public information act requests. And apart from accessing their work emails, there are other ways that outside groups can communicate with public employees to make sure they are aware of their rights.
California’s public employee unions collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year. If the Janus vs AFSCME ruling takes away the ability of government unions to compel payment of agency fees, and imposes annual opt-in requirements for both agency fees and political dues, these unions will collect less money. How much less will depend on courage and innovative thinking on the part of reformers who want to rescue California from unionized government.
Get a state job and meet your labor rep: How state budget protects California unions, Sacramento Bee, June 21, 2017
AB 52, Public employees: orientation and informational programs: exclusive representatives, California Legislature
Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Supreme Court of the United States Blog
SB 285, Atkins. Public employers: union organizing, California Legislature
2017-2018 budget trailer bill, AB 119, California Legislature
California Public Records Act, Office of the Attorney General
Fact Sheet – AB 52 (Cooper) & SB 285 (Atkins), California Labor Federation
Legislative Bulletin – California School Employees Association
SB 285: Public Employers Cannot Discourage Union Membership, Public Employee Relations Board
Public employee unions wield hefty Atkins stick [SB 285], San Diego Reader