Orange County teachers, having honed their political skills in several recent elections, are gunning for incumbents in three elementary and high school board races this year.
The local chapters of the California Teachers Assn. are pumping in dollars and volunteers to unseat incumbents in the Anaheim City School District and the Orange Unified and Santa Ana Unified school districts. A fourth district, Huntington Beach Union High School, features the union in strong defense of the incumbents it helped elect four years ago.
"Our teachers are out there and working," said Norma Potter, an Anaheim High School special education teacher and chairwoman of the CTA's service center in Orange. "There's a long history of this, of people working for their candidates and succeeding."
Recent Orange County school board elections reflect the increasing aggressiveness of local teachers' organizations, and the CTA has proven that it can deliver votes. Just ask members of the Huntington Beach school board who were tossed out in 1984, or trustees in Santa Ana Unified who in 1986 were swept out of office in Orange County's largest school district.
In those races, unions gave thousands of
dollars to the successful candidates. But even more important, they gave their endorsed challengers a guaranteed pool of volunteers to help canvass neighborhoods and work telephone banks. School board elections tend to produce low turnouts, so volunteer efforts, if they can muster even a few hundred votes, can have a decisive impact.
James A. Richards, a Santa Ana Unified trustee who watched as three of his colleagues were defeated in 1986, is seeking a third four-year term. He said he has never received the union's endorsement, and he proudly shuns it, refusing even to be considered.
"I frankly feel it's a conflict of interest," Richards said.
Like other officials who did not receive union endorsements, Richards said he does not believe the union will play a decisive role in this year's Santa Ana campaign. "Orange County is not a union county or a union society," he said.
Union leaders, while denying that Orange County voters rebel against organized labor, carefully stress that teachers have been able to distinguish themselves from most organized labor groups in terms of their popular support.
Still, most observers acknowledge that a union endorsement comes with risks as well as benefits. Some voters do not like unions, and in districts where labor disputes have prompted strikes or other work actions, even otherwise neutral voters are often antagonized by the union's role.
That may be the case in Orange Unified, where a seven-day teachers' strike last year frayed relations with district officials and tested parents' patience.
"There was a lot of backlash from that strike," said Jane McCracken, an incumbent trustee who was named to the board in February to fill an unexpired term and must run for election to complete the term's remaining two years. McCracken, in fact, is counting on that backlash, as she joins other incumbents seeking reelection in that district who are opposed by the union.
The unions, however, are pouring on their influence.
According to Steve McDonald, executive director of the Orange Unified Education Assn., the teachers' union has actively pushed its slate in Orange and doled out a total of $14,000 among its four candidates.
Also, the union representing other school district employees is backing three of the same challengers on the teacher-endorsed slate. That union, which is affiliated with the local chapter of the California School Employees Assn., is protesting a breakdown in salary negotiations with the district and demonstrated outside a recent board meeting. Several members spent Friday stuffing mailers for one of their candidates.
Incumbent school board President Sandy G. Englander bristles at the power of the organized labor groups and acknowledged that it has made some school board races too close to call. Englander was not endorsed by either union, but her opponent, college instructor John Hurley, didn't get the nod either.
"I think there are going to be some very, very close elections," Englander predicted Friday.
In Anaheim, the union's position and its support of two challengers boils down to a relatively straightforward disagreement with incumbents. For several years, despite union urging, the Anaheim school board has refused to allow an election to create an "agency shop." Under such an arrangement, all district teachers, whether or not they choose to join the union, would be charged dues to support the union's collective bargaining work.
"That's an important issue to us," Potter said.
Two incumbents are seeking reelection in the Anaheim district, the county's largest elementary school district. Those incumbents, Celia Dougherty and Betty Patterson, are facing off against four challengers for three seats.
Two of those challengers, Anaheim Police Officer Lou Lopez and realtor-educator Barbara C. Gonzalez, are receiving union support.
Many teachers welcome the high-profile role assumed by the union, but that feeling is not always shared by school administrators. Several high-ranking school officials in various districts said the unions have made it difficult for boards to govern objectively and have turned salary debates into hot political confrontations.
While the unions have as many passionate opponents as they do defenders, the fact that they prompt such strong reactions is evidence that they are a force to be reckoned with. And both sides agree that they are not about to disappear.
"The fact that they're teachers doesn't prevent them from being citizens," Anaheim City School District Supt. Meliton Lopez said. "They're intelligent, and they know how to set up a campaign. I expect they'll keep doing it."