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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Vista school scandal? You decide

For San Diego's North County Times

It's time to set the record straight on what a Vista school board member called taxpayer robbery, an Escondido charter school chief declared a student rip-off, and the local FOX channel ballooned into an expose.

The target for the overblown rhetoric was the $80,000 settlement of a $128,000 lawsuit filed by VUSD to recover several years of union underpayments for the union president's release time from teaching duties.
Board member Jim Gibson, an outspoken union critic, pushed initially for repayment of the entire $500,000 estimated shortfall over 15 years. He said he cast his lone vote against the compromise settlement because he thought it was an "absolute robbery."

But the depiction of a greedy union stealing from taxpayers is grossly distorted. Board president Steve Lilly separated fact from fiction in his Dec. 24, 2009, Community Forum in this newspaper.

In their 1995 contract with the district, the union agreed to reimburse 60 percent of the president's salary while on full-time leave from teaching duties. In response to several challenges in recent years, the district's attorneys repeatedly assured the board the arrangement was legal. It was also considered mutually beneficial, since both parties recognized the value of having union leaders work with administrators to head off costly litigation by mediating grievances before they wind up in court.

But a 2008 California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) ruling in a Berkeley School District case held the union responsible for full salary reimbursement to the district when the union president is on leave of absence. What had become common practice throughout California was for the first time ruled not in compliance with state law.

The PERB ruling led the district to discontinue the policy beginning in January 2010, and to ask the union for reimbursement of the district's portion of salary costs over the past three years, the statute of limitations in such cases.

If the district had launched a legal battle to collect another $48,000, as Gibson demanded, it would have cost taxpayers far more than that in legal fees. Fortunately, the adults in the room prevailed with a 4-1 vote, which included a guarantee of full reimbursement of the union president's salary in future years.

Gibson's opinion was shared by the executive director of Escondido's Classical Academies.
In a June 22 letter to the editor, Cameron Curry claimed that Vista students were being "ripped off" by the settlement. It's hard to understand his interest in the matter, unless it has something to do with VUSD's recent refusal to sponsor a Vista branch of his home-schooling charter school.

Was the local FOX channel's oversimplified expose of a complicated legal case a fair and balanced report?

You decide.

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