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Santa Ana teachers are showing honesty that wasn’t counted on

There must be a logical explanation, the teacher told herself. A bookkeeping mistake or some other oversight.

Why else would her second-grade class roster not include the names of students who were still in class? Why hadn’t someone told her ahead of time about the situation? And what would she do when the office wanted her to sign off on a pupil roster that she knew was inaccurate?

From that set of seemingly benign circumstances, a mini-scandal erupted in the Santa Ana Unified School District when it was learned that district officials falsified rosters in a number of classes so they would get state funding for lowering class sizes.

Over the last 10 days, The Times has reported the shenanigans. A school district administrator apologized last week.

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Policy is one thing. What has interested me from the start was the decision by several of the teachers first to confront their bosses over the issue and then, when nothing was done after a few weeks, to go public.

I sought out one of the teachers to serve as unofficial representative of the group, to discuss a situation that could face an employee in any company: What to do when you think your bosses are being unethical?

Remain silent? Or do you buck your superiors and risk repercussions? Even if that means that your school district might get a black eye?

For this teacher, the course became clear. Which didn’t mean it was easy.

“I definitely agonized over it,” she said as we talked in her home last week. “I knew by not signing the roster, I was making a statement. By not signing it, it’s almost like you’re not following the rules. My supervisors expected me to sign it. It’s almost like I’m being defiant. In the workplace, you don’t necessarily want to be defiant.”

Decision day was a Friday in February. That’s when the rosters, which teachers are told are legal documents, are normally signed. Of all the things teachers have to worry about during a school week, signing the classroom roster isn’t one of them.

Now it loomed as a crisis of conscience. On the night before, the teacher tried to talk herself out of doing what she knew she would do the next day.

Maybe I’m exaggerating the problem, she thought. Maybe it was an honest error.

But she and other teachers had hashed all that out in the preceding days. She knew this wasn’t a harmless mistake.

And then she got angry at the district for putting her on the spot. The district seemed to think the teachers would willingly go along with the deception over actual class size. “We knew if we signed the documents, we’d be lying,” she says.

That became the line she wouldn’t cross. “I felt the district was trying to define my values for me,” she says. “That’s for me to do. I live my values through my job. My job does not determine what they are.”

It wasn’t a one-day headache. “Every week I’m not signing,” she says, “so the tension is mounting and the pressure is mounting and the consequences are mounting.”

The pressure affected her in the classroom, she says, the one place where she wants to be at her best every day. And while there were no overt threats, all teachers know the games that can be played by administrators.

Although some teachers have been identified in print, the teacher I talked to doesn’t want to be identified now, partly because she doesn’t know if the district might retaliate against her and partly because the teachers don’t want to single out anyone in their group.

Through it all, she says, the dissident teachers talked frequently about what was at stake. Their conversations took on a depth of meaning that included what kind of legacy they’d leave.

“We’re constantly having conversations about our responsibility as educators, our profession, and ethical issues that come up in life, in general,” she says. “You talk about them with your students, you’re constantly talking about character and how character counts, honesty counts and all these other values that we discuss in class along with math and everything else.

“We found ourselves at that very moment making that decision about where you draw the line in the sand. We decided we can’t move our line. We’re either going to tell the truth or not.”

The teachers hope they’ve struck a blow for their profession and for social responsibility.

For all the sniping directed at teachers, I hope someone takes note of this group. From my perspective, there were two acts of moral courage.

Refusing to sign a roster is one thing. The teachers could have done that and kept it all inside the schoolhouse doors.

Blowing the whistle publicly on your superiors is a whole other matter. They knew that not all teachers supported them and that they could face repercussions. And that the district’s reputation would take a hit and might lose much-needed money.

With all that, I asked, why go public?

Too often, the teacher says, news stories dwell on negative things. Too seldom, she says, people of faith or conscience explain how those belief systems influence their decisions in a society that challenges people’s personal ethics on a daily basis.

The roster deception was bad policy, she says.

But more than that, it was wrong.

“I think if more and more people were to come forward,” she says, “and tell their stories about whatever it is within them -- either faith or moral upbringing or whatever -- that lead them to make these right decisions, then it will be OK for others to do so.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns:

www.latimes.com/parsons


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