Columnists Opinion

Cooperation, not conflict, is key to Inglewood school success

Last week, the Inglewood Teachers Association (ITA) stepped up its public dispute with the school district about who pays for their health insurance by conducting demonstrations at school board meetings and calling upon teachers to change their work routines at Inglewood school sites.

The union directed its members to withhold all voluntary work performed outside of the contractual workday for one week. Teachers who participated stopped grading assignments, planning lessons, returning phone calls and emails, attending meetings and tutoring when their official school day ended. They also did not participate in before-school and after-school programs.

At school board meeting protests, while teachers march around the district office wearing “not on strike yet” buttons, blowing whistles and making as much noise as possible, their union leaders are in the school board meeting room blaming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the “revolving door of state administrators” he has appointed for mismanaging the finances of the school district.

While protesting brings attention to the financial burden teachers face having to pay part of their health insurance, the teachers union may have miscalculated the community’s response to their tactics.

One reason why teachers are held in high esteem is their selfless devotion to their jobs. That includes volunteering their time.

By withholding voluntary work, Inglewood teachers risk tarnishing their image in the community as they back out on their commitment to “Giving Every Child, Every Chance, Every Day to Succeed.”

ITA President Aba Ngissah, said at the last school board meeting, “We cannot and will not shoulder the burden of the district’s mistakes. We did not make them and we will not pay for them.”

However, it’s no secret in the community that ITA bears some responsibility for the school district’s fiscal crisis. Union leadership advocated for the state to come in and take away the community’s right to govern its own schools.

They welcomed Torlakson with open arms when he showed up with his first choice for state administrator. When his state administrators failed to deliver balanced budgets, union leaders were silent. They knew that if they raised concerns, the state administrator would be free to point out that cuts to teacher salaries and benefits would be essential to reducing deficit spending.

Under state receivership, reducing teacher salaries and/or benefits was expected to be part of the prescription to restore fiscal stability to the Inglewood Unified School District. ITA leaders were warned by state Board of Education members and state agencies about reductions as they were advocating for the state receivership.

What happened was $29 million was borrowed from state funds and a portion of the borrowed money ended up covering the cost of employee health insurance, forestalling the need for teachers to pay part of their insurance premium.

The current state administrator, Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, deserves to be complemented for not continuing to “kick the can down the road” and addressing Inglewood Unified’s fiscal crisis and making the hard decisions needed to put it on a more sustainable financial path.

In the proposed health insurance plan that the union disputes, the school district will cover most of an employee’s health insurance cost. The pay checks of employees with dependents are the ones most affected by the proposal.

Since the state takeover, the school district has been overpaying for health insurance because state administrators gave in to ITA’s insistence that the school district purchase coverage from a health provider that had teacher union ties without putting the contract out for bid. That has cost the school district somewhere between a half a million and $4 million in additional costs.

In the future, the school district plans to solicit bids for its health insurance business, so that employees can get the same benefits for less cost.

Melendez has broken the pattern of her predecessors and is focused on controlling expenditures. That means prioritizing spending on what goes on inside the classroom and not giving in to pressure to spend more than the budget can handle on costs outside the classroom.

ITA leaders say their union has the best interest of students in mind. All the while they have been willing to take money from students to pay for their health benefits. ITA leader Ngissah said Inglewood Unified “can still borrow $26 million from the state to resolve its own mistakes.”

The school district is paying $1.8 million a year for 20 years for the money it has already borrowed. Any more money borrowed will add to the sum being paid back and that makes even less money available for educational programs.

While dealing with teacher protests, Melendez is finalizing a five-year strategic plan to make Inglewood Unified a popular destination for parents to send their students, something that her predecessors failed to do. The plan reflects input from parents, teachers and business leaders in the community. The plan includes upgrading school facilities and raising student academic performance.

Instead of being an impediment to progress and threatening to strike if they don’t get their way, the ITA should focus on partnering with Melendez in advancing the turnaround of Inglewood Unified.

The key to success for Inglewood Unified is cooperation, not conflict.

Joe Bowers is a public education advocate. He is a retired engineer and business executive and a graduate of Stanford University.