Saluting our unsung heroes

by Chris Ungar

It’s 6 a.m. and her school bus is gassed up, inspected and ready to begin gathering students from throughout the district. She guarantees that the kids will arrive safely, and, as a bonus, she helps reduce air pollution and traffic congestion;

It’s 10 p.m. and he’s just finished cleaning and sanitizing a kindergarten classroom. He wipes down the desks, vacuums the floor, empties the trash, replenishes paper towels and makes sure the restroom is spotless;

It’s 7 a.m. and she’s working in the district’s central kitchen feverishly packing nutritious lunches for hundreds of students. Henry Ford would be amazed at the assembly line efficiency needed to make sure that hungry kids get the food they need;

It’s noon and she’s sitting at her desk in the school office. A parent calls and asks to pick up his child for a dental appointment, the principal calls with a request for an appointment with a teacher, the site budget is due to the main office, and then a child with a skinned knee limps into the office moaning and sobbing. She drops everything to comfort him;

It’s 2:30 p.m. and she’s helping the special education teacher get the students ready for the trip home. She gathers clothing, backpacks and notes for parents and guardians. She bends down to hug a child goodbye when — out of the corner of her eye — she sees another student take off running from the room. The student is headed off campus, but she quickly runs after and catches him, reassures him and leads him back to school.

It’s 8 p.m. and, after a long day, he’s making a presentation on the critical teacher shortage. He’s the personnel director, and he’s sharing the district’s plan for recruitment and retention.

The crossing guard, the confidential secretary, the computer specialist, the plumber, the carpenter, the groundskeeper, the library technician and countless others are all classified employees. They are the glue that binds a district and the oil that keeps it running smoothly. They are the unsung heroes of the school district.

In a number of districts, classified employees are protected by the merit system. The system arose in 1936 after more than 700 Los Angeles school employees were fired to make way for the political “spoilsmen” of recently elected school board members.

The merit system is defined in statute and locally is led by three individuals who act as a personnel commission. One member represents the district, one represents the classified employees and the third is chosen by the other two. The personnel commission and the board of education are independent of each other, and they have separate as well as joint powers.

Personnel commissions are understandably protective of their independence. Commissioners’ responsibilities include recruiting, selecting and advancing employees; providing equitable and adequate compensation; ensuring fair treatment of employees; and protecting employees from partisan political efforts. All are guided by a set of rules and regulations designed to maintain fair and equitable employee treatment.

They take their charge seriously.

In February, I had the opportunity to speak to the California School Personnel Commissioners Association. I explained the four major roles of school boards, and they had several comments for me to share with all board members:

Talk to classified staff and try to “walk a mile in their shoes;”

»» Allow the personnel commission to make regular reports to the board;

»» Make the personnel commission a board committee assignment and report out after attending meetings;

»» Encourage your superintendent to ensure that classified employees are added to LCAP discussions;

»» Set aside money for classified professional development.

To this I would add: Always respect your unsung heroes. Your district cannot function without them.

Chris Ungar is the California School Boards Association 2016 President and is board member in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo County.