As a result of employee dissatisfaction arising from district disciplinary action involving a bus driver, the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District (FUESD) classified employee union, California School Employee Association (CSEA), has asked the district’s school board to implement a “merit system district.”
On March 3, school board members, administrators and the public heard a presentation on merit system districts by Steve Sonnich, former director of personnel for the Carlsbad Unified School District, where a merit system district is in place.
Sonnich is now chief human resources officer for the Grossmont Union High School District.
California’s Education Code covers merit system districts. There are nearly 100 such school districts in California.
According to Jim Whitlock, the assistant superintendent of the district, who oversees employer relations, about half the county school districts are merit system districts.
In an advisory memo, Whitlock said, “Merit systems (i.e. civil service) were a response to the spoils system of the early and middle 1800s. The first merit system in the nation for school districts was passed by the California legislature in 1935, largely in response to lobbying by the CSEA.”
A merit system school district includes, along with its school board, a personnel commission comprised of three members selected to serve three year staggered terms. One commissioner is from the school board, one from the classified employee union and the third appointed by the first two commissioners selected.
It also has a director of classified personnel, a job separate from Whitlock’s.
The California School Personnel Commissioner’s Association states, “The State Education Code provides that the personnel commissioners shall classify positions; hear appeals of disciplinary and dismissal matters, and protests involving examinations, selection and appointment procedures; and prescribe rules related to a variety of personnel practices.”
This gives a better voice to the classified people so that their issues are heard by an impartial group, says union member Gaylen Brady.
“It is my understanding that if the school board makes a decision on a classified person, a merit system district can also hear the issue and possibly overturn [the decision],” Brady says. “Then, that decision is binding on the school board.”
Union spokesperson Vicky Nelson says concerns are premature. “Right now we are fact-finding, talking to other districts that have merit systems.”
She says their union tried to establish a merit system five to six years ago, so the issue is nothing new. However, since they have “continued to have [their] struggles” and an event occurred which she would not discuss, it seemed the right time to try again.
The move puzzles Whitlock. Wondering what the advantage for the union could be, he says people working for the district have always been hired through a fair selection process. “I’ve never had a formal complaint since I came here in 1993,” he says.
“Do you make a formal complaint to the guy who has the power to fire you if he possibly has been involved in the complaint?” asks Brady.
Under the present practice, if a job opening occurs, the district automatically looks for a qualified replacement from its own ranks. Ninety percent of the time, they fill jobs from within, Whitlock says.
With a merit system in place, the criteria is different. For example, applicants will have to take tests.
Pressing forward, Whitlock believes the classified personnel intend to present a petition to the board as its first step. It takes a vote of 15 percent of the union.
If approved, the merit system could be in place by June 30.
The most troubling aspect of the issue is cost. Whitlock says the expense to the district could be as much as $200,000, money that would come out of the district General Fund.
To manage it, in light of the deep budget cuts now expected, he points to additional staff layoffs – some likely from the already lean classified employee staff pushing for the merit system.
Brady says, “This has been in the works before the big budget crisis” and wonders at Whitlock’s assessment of the cost.
“I’d like that job,” he says.
Nelson claims she was “shocked” when she heard that amount, commenting that when Whitlock retires in December, leaving a position that will not be filled, the commensurate salary – around $82,000 – could be used to hire a director of classified personnel.
Regarding the belt-tightening aspect of the 2008-2009 FUESD budget, Nelson says, “We will do everything to assist the district.”