By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Antioch EducationAssociaton members gather together during a protest.
For three years, members of the Antioch Education Association organized against the autocratic, top-down style of Superintendent Deborah Sims. Their efforts paid off when the embattled superintendent resigned in May. Members call it a bittersweet victory.
Sims was appointed superintendent of the Antioch Unified School District in 2006, replacing a longtime administrator who had a positive relationship with AEA members. From the start, it was clear the new superintendent wasn't interested in working with teachers or hearing their viewpoint.
"We had a Curriculum Council that consisted of teachers, administrators, a school board member and the superintendent," recalls Dylan Howell, a member of the bargaining team who teaches at Antioch High School. "Any time there was consideration of a new textbook or a new course, the members would debate and vote on it. That was the first thing she got rid of. Before she came here, there were a number of processes in place where decisions were made collectively. Once she came, they were eliminated."
Part of the problem, says Howell, is that former superintendent Sims was a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, founded by billionaire Eli Broad, who is a strong believer in the idea that schools should be run as a business. The Broad Foundation has invested millions in recruiting and training superintendents and school board members. It has also financed anti-union candidates in California school board races and spent millions on privatized charter schools.
"She expected that when she said 'Jump,' teachers would say 'How high?'" says Howell. "Instead, teachers ask why they should jump and how they can jump better. When people didn't jump, she would get livid."
She demeaned and intimidated a number of employees in the district office, says Howell, resulting in a large and unnecessary turnover. And she made decisions that adversely affected students without consulting with teachers.
Denise James, a special education teacher in the district and a member of the AEA Executive Board, takes it a step further by criticizing Sims for both ignoring and overruling the advice of professional teachers. "Under state and federal law," says James, "the professionals on an IEP team are to develop an individualized education program designed to address a student's specific challenges. Once Sims arrived on the scene, the professionals on an IEP team had their hands tied when told by the district they could no longer include such services as one-on-one aides, transportation and counseling for our special students."
Discipline was not enforced at school sites, say teachers, and safety problems increased. So the AEA conducted a school site safety survey that reported the following: Teachers say their students have told them they feel unsafe at school, according to 58 percent of elementary school, 76 percent of middle school and 95 percent of high school teachers surveyed. Teachers see discrepancies in "zero tolerance" policies, according to 73 percent of elementary school teachers, 87 percent of middle school and 95 percent of high school teachers surveyed. Sixty-four percent of high school teachers and 51 percent of middle school teachers said they had considered leaving the district due to lax discipline. Consequences for student behavior are not consistent, according to 75 percent of elementary school, 79 percent of middle school and 98 percent of high school teachers.
The situation worsened when Superintendent Sims refused to bring any portion of the increase the district received from the state in 2007-08 to the bargaining table and took away funds that were already on the bargaining table. Sims also imposed new requirements for sick leave that were in violation of the contract and proposed reducing the lunch period. After 19 bargaining sessions, six mediation sessions and 17 months of bargaining, she reportedly told teachers she had presented her "best and last" offer. Members believe it was just another tactic to continue stalling the process indefinitely.
Enough was finally enough. "Early on, we began to realize that this had to be dealt with in a powerful way," says AEA President Gary Hack. "So we organized."
Hundreds of teachers showed up to protest Sims' dictatorial tactics at school board meetings, 97 percent of AEA members cast a vote of no confidence in her, and 98.5 percent voted no on her "last and best" offer. Then Antioch's parents joined their teachers to protest against Sims before the board. In May, she resigned.
"It was an amazing victory for us," says Sandy Wilbanks, chair of the AEA organizing team. "We worked tirelessly to educate and organize our fellow teachers to fight for their rights — and also the rights of the students. Even with what is happening in the economy, it's up to teachers to protect education, protect children and be the keepers of education."