BOARD’S UNLIKELY SECRET ALLIES
COLLEGES: Conservative trustees who rail against teachers unions get crucial help from union-funded PACs.
October 31, 1998
The Orange County Register
Donald Wagner is campaigning as a fiscal conservative for a seat on the South Orange County Community College board.
He is supported by the Education Alliance, a group that advocates “back-to-basics” education and frequently battles teachers unions for control over school boards. He fought for Proposition 226, a ballot measure that would have restricted unions’ ability to use members’ dues for political campaigns.
He also has an unusual—and largely unknown—ally: the local chapter of the California Teachers Association.
Political action committees funded by the union secretly paid for campaign fliers for Wagner and fellow candidate Nancy Padberg.
The same thing happened in 1996, when three candidates promoted in a campaign mailer paid for by the union won seats.
Even candidates supported by the union said they were unaware of the campaign help.
“The teachers union? “ Wagner said. “The California Teachers Association is overwhelmingly liberal. I would seriously doubt they would support a conservative Republican like me. I was generally pleased to get the support ... but I think it’s strange that it’s the union.”
Union leaders have not given a public explanation for their decisions. They have refused to discuss either campaign with their rank and file, even though members’ dues financed the fliers.
Critics of the union and the board majority say the reasons have become obvious. They point to the following:
A five-year contract, negotiated after the 1996 election, that boosted teachers’ salaries at an estimated annual cost of $5 million when the district was on the state’s fiscal watch list--and when faculty pay was already the highest of any community college in the state.
Administrators who had made enemies with the union say they have been removed, or forced out, by the board majority and replaced with union loyalists. Since 1996, eight administrators have left the district and five have returned to the classroom, with several saying they fled a hostile work environment that began after the election.
The union’s political consultant for the 1996 campaign flier that helped elect three members of the board majority [Pam Zanelli] now works as the district’s spokeswoman at roughly $5,000 a month.
“Why is the faculty union giving money to endorse candidates who are appealing to a segment of the voter population who is opposed to unions? “ said Irvine Valley College professor and union member Brenda Borron. “It’s simple. It’s the buying and selling of board members. They will do anything to keep control of the board majority.”
Union President Sherry Miller White has refused comment to reporters and to her own members about either campaign.
Board President John Williams did not agree to an interview, but he has said at public meetings that he and the board majority are not controlled by the union, nor is the union controlled by the board.
The union chapter’s bylaws give all decision-making authority for campaigning to the current president and any past union presidents who wish to serve on the election committee. That group doesn’t have to tell members what it’s doing.
Campaign disclosure forms filed with the county registrar of voters show teachers union funds going to four political action committees since 1996 to pay for two fliers.
Nowhere on either mailer—which were sent out en masse to south Orange County homes—is the union mentioned. Only the political action committees’ names, such as Taxpayers for Responsible Educators, appear.
Saddleback College English Professor Robert Kopfstein doesn’t believe the union should play any campaign role.
“My advice has been to get out of the election business altogether,” said Kopfstein, the treasurer for one of the union’s political action committees, which indirectly helped fund the latest mass mailer. “It’s too difficult to get consensus from members on candidates. And a hit piece—even if it were truthful—it’s not the kind of thing faculty has much stomach for.”
Since the election of the current board majority, the district has been deeply divided.
Thursday, two outside accrediting teams left Irvine Valley and Saddleback colleges, saying they were “stunned” by “divisiveness and disharmony” they found. Accreditation is necessary so that students can qualify for federal financial aid and have their credits accepted by universities.
Members of the board majority say a group of professors is stirring up all the trouble—teachers who’ve lost power and money as a result of reforms the board has passed. [Note: these “professors” began stirring up “trouble”--Brown Act lawsuits, bad press, etc.--months before the loss of any Chairships and reassigned time.]
None of the four members agreed to an interview, but in a prepared statement Dorothy Fortune said this week that 28 administrators are now doing work that was assigned to 46 in 1996.
In the process, many faculty members who held quasi-administrative duties have returned to the classroom. She estimates the savings at $1.8 million.
“Employees who previously benefited from past wasteful district practices have bitterly contested reform,” Fortune said.
But some rank-and-file members say the discord has been caused by the board majority, who were elected with the help of the union leadership. And this is why they view any new union campaign efforts with suspicion—especially since it again has been done in secret.
In 1996, the union paid $40,000 to mail out a flier that read: “Stop Same Sex ‘Marriage’ Advocates Who Want to TAKE CONTROL of Your Tax Dollars and Your Community Colleges” and supported three members of the current board majority.
This campaign, the union has financed a mass mailing supporting Padberg and Wagner that uses another hot-button issue—the proposed El Toro airport—to try to get people to the polls.
Both in 1996 and this election year, professors say they are unwillingly helping people with ties to groups that the CTA typically fights.
“I’d love to hear union leaders’ reasoning for supporting these two candidates,” said Roni Lebauer, a Saddleback College professor.
“They are both endorsed by extremely conservative groups that are anti-union.”
For example, board President John Williams was backed by the teachers union and elected in 1996. He has strong ties to members of the Education Alliance, which supports opponents of union-backed candidates.
CTA leader David Lebow, who was called into the south Orange County local to investigate the 1996 campaign, said union leaders may have chosen some unconventional candidates, but they had their reasons.
“The group they didn’t endorse was interested in reducing their salaries. They really believed it was a threat to their very existence,” said Lebow about the 1996 campaign. “But the (same-sex marriage) flier was bad. ... It was really bad. They did it because they believed they had to win that election.”
This time, Lebow said, CTA headquarters will once again not monitor the local chapter’s candidate endorsements. Instead, Lebow said, union officials are handling a mail vote on a proposed chapter bylaw change that would prevent any secret endorsements in the 2000 campaign.
The new bylaws, if passed, would require the current campaign committee to share its plans with a large panel of teachers, which would include an elected representative from each department at the two colleges. The panel would then vote on the campaign committee’s recommendations, and members would be informed of the final decisions.
But Saddleback College Professor Cheryl Altman said that many teachers are cynical about the effect of a bylaw change.
“I don’t have any confidence left,” Altman said. “Many of the old bylaws were never followed. You have to have leaders who are willing to follow the rules.”