COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ERIC CHRISTEN

Voters cannot trust San Diego Unified

On Nov. 2 voters rejected San Diego Unified School District’s plea for more money. Proposition J needed 66 percent to pass but barely received 50 percent.

So why did Prop J proponents spend almost $200,000 of taxpayer money for “consultants” and polling? The polls must have shown it was headed for defeat and not worth $200,000 being wasted. They spent it because they could and therein perfectly crystallized why they don’t deserve more.

I was part of a coalition of parents, business groups and taxpayer advocates who opposed Proposition J, arguing that voters simply cannot trust this district and this board when it comes to money. The usual suspects who continue to make excuses for the dysfunctional status quo at SDUSD will argue that the public was in a foul mood when it came to tax increases. However, there were 18 parcel taxes on the ballot in California and only two received a lower percentage of the vote than SDUSD’s.

SDUSD can’t be trusted because it is a poster child of waste, fraud and abuse. Each year $1.2 billion is given to SDUSD with the expectation its 131,000-plus students will be educated, which comes out to $10,000-plus per student. In comparison, the Los Angeles Archdiocese spends $5,000 per student to educate its 80,000-plus students. Few would argue SDUSD taxpayers are getting twice the education of kids in L.A.’s Catholic school system. In fact, what they are getting would invite criminal prosecution if it were occurring in the private sector.

Using the California High School Exit Exam as a form of measurement, only 16 percent of SDUSD students are literate when they graduate while only 26 percent are numerate. This begs the question: How are these people allowed anywhere near machinery, let alone students, and what are they doing with $1.2 billion every year?

Let’s start with the latter. What SDUSD spends that money on has little to do with students and everything to do with perpetuating a system that exists to employ people and reward special interests, period. How else do you explain the fact that SDUSD has 16,000 employees but only 7,000 teachers?

From the mind blowing “golden handshakes” that see former finance directors take an early "retirement" only to be re-hired at $100,000 per year to do what they were being paid to do before leaving, to the taxpayer funded trips to Hawaii, money is just not a concern to these people.

Then there is the debacle that serves as the poster boy for the school board’s fiscal mismanagement and special interest favoritism: The $2.1 billion Proposition S school construction bond Project Labor Agreement (PLA). Voters passed Prop S in 2008 only to have three board members place a union-friendly PLA on it. To date, the results have been a 50 percent reduction in bidders on construction projects and a corresponding increase in costs.

What about the teachers? In 2008 only one teacher out of 7,000 was found worthy of being fired. Are 99.99 percent of SDUSD’s teachers really that good? No, but the union collective bargaining agreement that governs every aspect of a teacher’s existence makes it all but impossible to fire the bad ones.

But the real growth in the district’s budget is due to impossible-to-ever-meet employee pensions that prove the servants have in fact become the masters. At least you’d think all this money would get us courteous teachers and employees, but you’d be wrong. When a number of us spoke before the board to oppose the parcel tax, the boos and hisses that emanated from the employees who packed the board meeting that night left one incredulous.

I marveled the brave parents who spoke were able to keep their composure in the face of such boorish behavior.

Which brings us to how these folks get to be in the position of running this public employee agency. The unions run this show from top to bottom. Want to fire a teacher? Good luck with that. Want to bring in a superintendent to usher in real reform? How’s that been working out these past 12 years? Want to fund a slate of reform candidates and put students and taxpayers ahead of the big labor special interests? You’ll need to at least match the $200,000 unions can spend each election cycle, per seat!

Want to know who really runs SDUSD? Just look for the union label. Until this reality changes, myself and others will continue to educate the public on just why it is this district deserves not a dime more.

Christen is executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.

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