Chalk Fight

Teachers' union grand dame Joan Marie Shelley is forced into the campaign of her career by a formerly loyal lieutenant

Shelley's weakest spot is her inability to bridge a gap the size of the Grand Canyon that separates the union from some of the city's minority populations. Long-standing tensions between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the teachers remain unresolved. In 1978, the NAACP filed the lawsuit against the district that led to court-ordered desegregation in San Francisco. The teachers have been unsuccessful in repeated attempts to join in that suit, which would give them a voice in the court's plan. Beyond that, the NAACP has for years blasted teachers, often more than school district administrators, for the low academic performance of African-American children, saying the teachers are disengaged from the African-American community. That same tension has led the NAACP to support district administrators and their policies over the teachers' objections.

One of the union's biggest defeats in the past half-decade or so was its inability to halt a controversial reform tactic known as "reconstitution," which the district revived as part of its efforts to achieve improvements mandated in the court-ordered desegregation plan. Under reconstitution, the district replaces the entire staff of a low-performing school, leaving the teachers and administrators who worked there to scramble for jobs elsewhere in the district. Ironically, the union's feeble response to reconstitution -- and the job threat that it can pose -- has helped galvanize teacher support for the union, as teachers lined up against a common enemy -- S.F. schools Superintendent Waldemar Rojas.

But that was before Shelley's May Surprise.
On May 1, Shelley and Rojas signed a tentative agreement that could in effect end reconstitution. In exchange for that concession, the school district would be able to force transfers on teachers who aren't performing their jobs. Details have yet to be worked out, and the agreement must be approved by the federal judge who monitors the district's desegregation order. But if the agreement passes muster, Shelley could claim it as a major victory.

Rojas benefits, too, now that reconstitution has lost the kind of enthusiastic support from Board of Education members that it had at its onset three years ago.

Judging from the questions put to union presidential candidates at a forum on May 15, however, a lot of San Francisco teachers aren't impressed by Shelley's maneuvers with Rojas. They don't want agreements; they want action. Though the event was sparsely attended -- about 50 of the 6,100 union members showed up in a testament to the organization's loosening grasp on its teachers -- most of the questions were about jump-starting the organization. Suffice it to say the phrase "more militant" popped up in several questions.

Just as tactics are shifting, so is the nature of the union's constituency. Thanks to a combination of events -- the state's recent funding for smaller class sizes, which heightened demand for teachers; an increasing wave of immigration, which adds to the pupil rolls; and an aging teacher population, which will lead to a wave of retirements -- the San Francisco Unified School District may well experience a teacher shortage in the coming years. At the least, there will be a lot of new faces in front of the classroom as old teachers are replaced.

And it is for that reason that Mitchell chose to stomp on protocol rather than wait for Shelley's retirement.

But Shelley is not easily dismissed. She presided over the merger of two unions that were often at war with one another. She's survived more school board members than anyone can remember -- plus a handful of superintendents. She has captained numerous negotiating teams clamoring for dollars at the bargaining table. And Joan Marie Shelley is not leaving without a fight.

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