At a recent Culver City Unified School District board meeting, dozens of parents packed the chambers to protest an outbreak of campus bullying. Valentina Garcia, the mother of a first-grader attending the National Blue Ribbon–awarded El Marino Language School, stepped to the microphone and proclaimed that if ruffians had accosted her daughter for her lunch money, “my logical response would not be to write the bullies a check.” What made Garcia’s statement unusual was that she wasn’t describing the bullying of children—she was referring to a local education union’s intimidation of parents.

In this West Los Angeles school district, the Association of Classified Employees (ACE)—a union representing non-teaching school staff—wants to force minimally compensated, hard-working volunteers and classroom adjuncts to unionize in a scheme both sides agree would be more expensive and exclusionary. This isn’t the first time a California-based union has tried to muscle school volunteers. In 2010, parent and community volunteers in a Bay Area school district sought to fill non-teaching positions slashed during two years of budget cuts, only to be met by a service union threatening a lawsuit to block their participation. Now ACE is contemplating legal action to stop El Marino’s adjunct program.

Culver City launched El Marino Language School, the first Spanish-language immersion program in the United States. The program started more than 40 years ago. The school expanded to include Japanese in the early 1990s. Because its students needed additional classroom help, parents in 1989 created Advocates for Language Learning El Marino (ALLEM), a nonprofit organization that raises money to hire part-time, independent adjunct teachers for each classroom. The adjuncts work one and a half to three hours per day, five days a week. Since language immersion requires a great deal of work to keep students up to date in both English and the second language, the extra help is significant. Most adjuncts have some personal connection to the school. Many are parents of current or former students. Some are former teachers or tutors themselves. They’re not unqualified or untrained amateurs.

The mother of two kids in El Marino, Jeanine Wisnosky Stehlin explains the challenge of keeping ALLEM alive. “We worked so hard,” she said. “It is very unglamorous how we raised money to support these 20 adjuncts that we have at El Marino. We had bake sales, silent auctions, pledges; we’ve begged grandparents. We have book sales; we host community nights at local restaurants. It’s a dollar here and a dollar there. That’s how we have raised money, and we’ve done it for 23 years.”

The union argues that the adjunct program is unfair to other schools that lack a similar level of parent and community involvement. At the same time, the union proposes that ALLEM continue its fundraising—to support higher-cost, unionized adjuncts. ACE president Debbie Hamme claims that unionized adjuncts would be better part-time teachers because they would receive regulated training under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Somehow El Marino, an award-winning school with high student-performance rankings in mathematics as well as language, has flourished thus far without such advantages.

“When people are doing our bargaining unit work on a daily basis, we have the right to ask that those people be made a part of our unit,” Hamme says. She added, in words calling The Sopranos to mind: “We decided as an executive board for the union that we needed to negotiate that they be brought into our unit. It’s not a personal thing, it’s a negotiations thing.”

Parents aren’t buying it. They see ACE’s machinations as a simple power grab. As Jeanine Stehlin maintains: “The booster clubs are expected to continue paying for the programs, but lose all rights of hiring, control, supervision and decision-making.” Another parent, Bryan Tjomsland, notes that if ACE prevails, Culver City residents are unlikely to support a foundation that would end up subsidizing the union. “If they unionize, the kids would be getting half of the benefit, but what’s worse, parents won’t want to support a program where they only get half of the benefit of their money,” he said. A spokesman for Advocates for Language Learning El Marino said the group would need to raise 40 percent more money every year to pay for unionized employees.

Remarkably, the union has no plans to move the adjuncts toward full-time status or even make them eligible for union health benefits and pensions. Instead, the newly unionized workers would have to pay union dues equivalent to those of full-time workers without receiving any of the benefits. Should they decline union membership, they would still have to pay collective bargaining fees—becoming “fee payers” who pay roughly 80 percent of full member dues without actually being enrolled in the union.

Thus far, Culver City school district officials have stood firm, refusing to force the adjuncts into negotiations with the union. But the union appears undaunted. “I am not surprised but I am disappointed,” said Hamme. “I am a firm believer in solving issues at the lowest common denominator. This just prolongs everybody’s agony”—as if her organization has no power to make the agony stop. ACE’s next steps include filing a grievance with the district, followed by an appeal to the union-aligned Public Employment Relations Board.

Clearly, more is at stake here than policymaking at one elementary school. The union push to extort dues out of parent-funded workers is not limited to El Marino. The union’s tactics will affect proposed or current positions at other Culver City elementary schools—such as curriculum coaches at Linwood Howe, the Growing Great leaders at Farragut, the science lab coordinator at El Rincon, and language adjuncts for the immersion program at La Ballona. As El Marino’s students learn Japanese and Spanish, parents and community members are receiving an immersion education in union politics.


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