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Chalk Fight 

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

Wednesday, May 21 1997
Democracy is nothing if not interesting. And when democracy finally hits one of the city's most entrenched labor organizations, it can be extraordinarily interesting. Exactly how much more interesting, Joan Marie Shelley, grand dame of San Francisco teachers, is about to find out. Shelley is president of the United Educators of San Francisco, the union that represents the city's 6,100 public school teachers.

For the first time in her 12-year union leadership, and for the first time in the organization's history, Shelley faces a serious challenge for her seat. And that challenge comes, not from some outside radical, but from inside her own executive suite. Union treasurer Kent Mitchell, a long-standing member of the Shelley team and much-speculated on as her heir apparent, is running against the boss.

If Mitchell upsets Shelley, the teachers are likely to start acting more like a labor union, both internally -- through organizing efforts pointed toward new teachers -- and externally -- forming political alliances to pressure both the district administration and the school board.

Shelley sounds conciliatory when she discusses her challenger. "There are practically no philosophical disagreements between the two of us," Shelley says. "Kent expressed to me some years ago his desire to succeed me. I can only conclude that he got tired of biding his time waiting in the wings."

Mitchell struck a more aggressive note. "We have become detached from parents and the community. And we have become vulnerable to this charge that only the school district [administration] cares about kids," says Mitchell. "We haven't gone even 100 yards to help build a bridge [to the African-American community] to show them we both want the same things. I believe those bridges need to be built."

If the philosophical differences sound faint, that's because they are. In fact, the standoff between Mitchell and Shelley came about almost by accident. Mitchell assumed Shelley was going to retire. Shelley assumed Mitchell would never run against her.

When it came time to declare their candidacies or withdraw, neither was willing to back down. (Two other challengers -- Karen Morgan, a counselor at Herbert Hoover Middle School, and Charles DuCharme, a paraprofessional at Leonard Flynn Elementary School -- also have joined the race to lead the organization. Neither candidacy is expected to play much of a role in the outcome.)

Mail ballots sent to the rank and file will be counted May 29. Because of the convenience of voting by mail and interest stirred by the controversy of a contested election, most of the teachers and paraprofessionals (teaching assistants) in the union are likely to vote. Besides, both sides are campaigning hard. For probably the first time in the union's history, candidates have amassed war chests for fliers, pins, rallies, and other campaign items. Mitchell says he's already raised about $2,000 in contributions. Shelley said she expects to spend "several thousand dollars" before it's over.

Until a winner is known, you could say there's some tension in the air at the union's Market and 14th Street offices.

United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), is a unique breed among teachers' unions across the country. It is the hybrid of a 1989 merger of the local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and remains affiliated with both national organizations. Shelley, who was the president of the American Federation of Teachers local at the time, came out on top -- and has held the presidency ever since.

Politics comes naturally to Shelley, who used to teach French at Lowell High School and has worked in the San Francisco Unified School District since 1955. She is the daughter of former San Francisco Mayor Jack Shelley (1964-1968) and sister of current assemblyman and former supervisor Kevin Shelley.

Mitchell, too, came from the Federation side of the partnership. He was the treasurer of the Federation local before the merger and became the full-time treasurer of the new entity afterwards. He has been in the district since 1969, having taught social science and computers at what is now Malcolm X Academy and Roosevelt Middle School.

On the surface, there isn't much to distinguish Mitchell from his boss, except his new emphasis on union activism. The organization, he says, needs a new leader in order to make a new start.

"We haven't presented a clear agenda. We drifted from the membership. New teachers are disengaged. They don't see the benefit of the union," he says. "We have to give them a reason to believe."

Mitchell is campaigning against the backdrop of years of continuing organizational evolution. The historic merger was designed to present a united front when, a decade ago, teachers faced the uncertainty of a recession-wracked economy, heightened by layoffs and cutbacks from the district. The decision to combine forces in a union-strong city like San Francisco should have made teachers a force to be reckoned with. But that never quite happened. The union has lost some major battles over the years and registered few gains. Starting salaries are $29,000, with restricted benefits. The district continues to use long-term temps, thereby avoiding the creation of more union jobs.

Shelley has focused a great deal of her energy on internal matters, specifically creating the merged organization. That has begun to change recently, as the union has moved toward boosting professional development and education reform. But it may well be too much, too late. The organization has lost the attention of its constituents, the teachers, especially the newer, younger ones, who are not automatically joining up when they walk in the classroom like their predecessors did. (Union membership is voluntary.)

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.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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