COSTA MESA / NEWPORT BEACH : Employees' Union Backs School Board

The leadership of the classified employees' union has sent a letter to the trustees of the embattled Newport-Mesa Unified School District supporting current administrators and calling for a careful approach to problem-solving in the district, which is still reeling from the embezzlement of at least $3.5 million by its former top financial officer.

Signed by the union's eight-member executive board, the letter praises acting Supt. Carol A. Berg, whose ouster has been demanded by angry parents and teachers at several recent school board meetings.

"Her track record of high integrity and proven competence has earned her the support of the classified staff," the letter says. "We believe she can provide the leadership and stability so vital to the district in this time of crisis."

The union represents the district's 753 classified employees, including custodians, cafeteria help, bus drivers, maintenance staff and clerical workers.

The first public comment by the union since the embezzlement came to light in October, the letter represents the group's decision not to follow the lead of the teachers' union, which two weeks ago announced an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Berg, ailing Supt. John W. Nicoll and Assistant Supt. Thomas A. Godley.

"We do not join with those who wish to combine their grievances with the current crisis to petition the immediate removal of all leadership in the district," the letter says. "We urge a conservative, thoughtful and planned approach to problem-solving and not an emotional response to special interest groups."

Referring to the district as at a "crisis point," the four-paragraph letter dated Dec. 17 has comforted school board members, who have been deluged with critical letters and phone calls from the community.

"I think it's a more realistic letter because it'd be totally counterproductive to say, 'OK, let's fire everybody at the top,' " said Board of Education member Forrest K. Werner. "I think (the union) felt . . . this is the time for us to stay in concert, stay together, and show that not everybody is as unhappy as some people are."

Sally Granite, treasurer of the classified employees' union, said the executive board chose not to survey the union's 150 members, or the 753 employees the union represents, because many people are not well-informed about the district's problems. Granite said the union's decision not to conduct a no-confidence vote--as suggested by the teachers group--does not mean it is "bucking the teachers."

The two unions "have gotten along very well in the past, but we did not feel that any good would come out of recalling the top three administrators, so we would not go along with surveying our people about a vote of no confidence," Granite said.

Berg and Maya Decker, president of the teachers' union, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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