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Photo by Joy BastIt's no surprise that John Rossmann hates the Orange Unified school board. As head of the district's teachers union, Rossmann has watched a school board that is the pedagogical equivalent of a hand grenade with the pin removed. Arch conservatives on the board have hamfistedly attacked federal lunch and counseling programs; tried shortsightedly to privatize bus service; ended bilingual education in a way that seemed determined to piss off the district's Latino parents; vowed to shut down all extracurricular clubs in the district rather than allow students at El Modena High School to run a gay/straight alliance; and attempted to replace an outgoing superintendent with a cadre of board-picked minirulers.
Then, of course, there are the checkbook issues of real concern to Rossmann's 1,500 members: Orange Unified's veteran teachers remain among the lowest paid in the county, and they're two years beyond the end of their last voluntary contract.
But everyone knows about the whacked-out Orange school board. What they may not know is that Rossmann may be his union's own worst enemy.
Rossmann has support, mostly among older teachers who, like the 57-year-old Rossmann himself, are in the second halves of their careers; it's fair to say that many of them think less about the future of Orange Unified than about RV parks in Arizona. It's equally fair to point out that these veterans typically earn about $10,000 less than their equally experienced peers elsewhere in the county.
Rossmann has mustered these older unionists into a war against the board. In that war, Rossmann has shown himself willing to trade off the long-term interests of the district and its younger teachers for the near-term interests of his older members.
Indeed, it's occasionally unclear who Rossmann hates more—the conservative board or his own young teachers. Like many districts in the state, Orange Unified has responded to class-size reduction mandates from Sacramento by hiring teachers holding only emergency credentials—temporary teaching certificates that enable them to teach as they work toward certification.
But Rossmann says Orange's high number of emergency-credentialed teachers is evidence that the board is using low pay to drive away veteran teachers; 41 percent of Orange Unified's teachers hold emergency credentials, more than any other Orange County district.
Rossmann has been frank about his contempt for emergency-credentialed teachers. Rather than crediting them with great courage and even virtue—they have, after all, taken jobs in a highly political district and accepted the daunting prospect of going to school at night after teaching all day—he has dismissed them as invariably incompetent. In an informational memo distributed to teachers in January, he wrote, "Emergency credential means no credential. Emergency credentials are bought." Rossmann tried to back up his assertion with a statistical claim that "83 percent of [Orange's] failing schools are minority schools where children are taught by a large number of emergency credentialed people."
Many teachers new to Orange say Rossmann's opinion is not widely held among the district's credentialed teachers; sadly, they say, it is still too common. "I have not felt a warm embrace from veteran teachers," said one new teacher with an emergency credential outside a recent meeting.
What has been embraced warmly, however, is money the union collects from the new teachers Rossmann abuses in his battle with the board. New teachers in Orange Unified pay what is known as an "agency fee"—best characterized as union dues for nonunion members. The union justifies the fee this way: the union improves working conditions for all teachers, even those not in the union. Credentialed or not, therefore, all teachers cough up between $14 and $70 monthly.
Although the younger teachers contribute to the union, many express dissatisfaction with its leadership. "There aren't a lot of new teachers that are particularly thrilled with his leadership," said one new teacher who requested anonymity. "And I don't particularly appreciate some of the propaganda about the new teachers. [Rossmann] is an embarrassment for me."
Another young teacher, Debbie Sheldon, weighed in after Rossmann urged teachers to strike. In a letter to board president Linda Davis, an annoyed Sheldon said Rossmann "doesn't seem to be interested in settlements or solutions, but only his personal vendetta against the board. He is not a solution to our problems; he is a cause."
Sheldon is not the only one to question the real thrust of Rossmann's crusade. Even ardent union supporters question his tactics. In October, Rossmann called on union members to secede from the California Teachers Association [CTA] and form a new association affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. That struck directly at Rossmann's right-hand man, Bill Shanahan—one of two CTA staffers employed by the Orange union. In an open letter to Rossmann, Shanahan charged that his "rhetoric does nothing to unite [the union]; it encourages dissonance. Is that your unstated goal?"
With June around the corner, Orange teachers will have time to consider whether they're better off than they were a year ago when Rossmann took office. Since then, they have walked off the job three times. The school board has forced a contract on them. And the union has managed to rack up three official complaints from the state for misconduct related to district negotiations. Meanwhile, every one of Rossmann's numerous allegations of illegal activity on the part of the school board has failed to stick, and despite some positive rumblings, there still isn't a contract in sight.
Rossmann's idea to get rid of the Orange school board may be a good one, but for teachers looking at another unproductive year under the windy Rossmann, getting rid of Rossmann might be a better one.