Confronting a financial disaster they helped create, Santa Ana teachers union leaders did Tuesday what they’ve done for years: They blamed someone else.
In a newsletter they sent to all Santa Ana teachers, union leaders blamed me for the declining enrollment in the district’s schools.
In short, they say my work to provide parents with alternatives to underperforming schools led to an exodus of children from district schools.
It’s true that more and more Santa Ana parents are choosing public charter schools over poor-performing union-run schools. But student enrollment in Santa Ana has been falling for years. I first heard about it in a March 2015 school board meeting when the district’s assistant superintendent gave us the Facilities Master Plan, a document showing that the number of students in our district had been falling since 2002, and would continue to decline about 2 percent per year through at least 2018.
Despite that long-term decline, teachers union leaders continued to lobby for higher teacher pay every year. In any other business, a decline in customers would lead to cost-savings measures. But not in Santa Ana Unified. Since 2013, union leaders worked overtime to sell their members, and my colleagues, on a myth: that teacher pay can rise even as the student population — and the associated state and federal funding — declines.
Three times in three years, union leaders Susan Mercer and Barbara Pearson peddled that myth. Every year, my fellow trustees took the path of least resistance and caved in. In the end, teacher pay jumped a total of 16 percent over three years.
The most recent increase, a 10 percent pay raise approved 4-1 in 2015, now costs the district $32 million annually. I voted against that increase because it failed to grasp the reality of declining enrollment.
On Tuesday night, we reached the dead end of the union’s logic. That night, my colleagues on the school board — the same board members who voted for the pay raises — acknowledged that we are confronting a financial crisis. They voted to save $28 million by pink-slipping 287 teachers. Mine was the lone dissenting vote.
Those 287 teachers won’t be terminated because they’re bad teachers. They’ll be terminated only because they’re new — because the union leaders who led our teachers into a financial dead end also insisted that their contract include what’s called the LIFO (last in, first out) clause, so that in a budget crisis the most recently hired are the first to go.
Releasing those 287 teachers means that Santa Ana students will be moved into larger classes. It means that our remaining teachers will shoulder the additional work of those larger classes.
I want to speak directly to those 287 teachers who may be laid off: I’m sorry. You no doubt started your work here with great enthusiasm for the mission of educating Santa Ana’s young people. You likely knew the challenges and rewards of working here, and celebrated your new job with calls to friends and family, telling them that you were ready to embark on your teaching career with energy, courage and creativity.
You had no reason to expect that the leaders of your own union would betray you. But they did. And you had every reason to expect that our school board would protect you from the union leadership’s destructive, single-minded push for higher wages. But they didn’t.
The union leadership’s choke hold on the district — the destructive influence of union money poured into the political campaigns of my fellow trustees — confused my colleagues. They came to believe that they owed their positions to union leaders, rather than to the education of our children, the promotion of great teachers and service to our parents.
You young teachers deserved better. Our students and their families deserved better.
Cecilia “Ceci” Iglesias is a Santa Ana Unified School District board member, and community relations director for the California Policy Center’s education initiative. This commentary originally appeared in the Orange County Register on March 12.