Pasadena Unified workers focus merit system, ‘gatekeeper to prevent injustice’ – will the kids be okay? – Pasadena Star News

Pasadena Unified has dismantled its four-decade-old, supposedly merit-based personnel system — a playbook meant to keep nepotism out of hiring and promotion decisions.

But does this mean that the buddies will soon fill the cafeterias and the administrative offices of the district? Also known as the civil service system, the merit system was first introduced to California school districts in 1936 when Los Angeles Unified adopted it in response to a scandal that resulted in the dismissal of some 2,000 employees, according to the California School Boards Association.

Among the problems were candidates who were offered jobs in exchange for political support, according to the California School Employees Association, a union that represents non-teaching employees in the public school district, also known as classified employees. Pasadena Unified adopted the merit system in 1979 for its classified employees. In doing so, it set up an independent staff commission to oversee hiring and firing decisions and deal with grievances of some 900 non-teaching staff.

“These 900 employees are there to serve your constituents, which are the students,” said Christine Quan, attorney for the Pasadena Unified Personnel Commission. “They want to see fairness and fairness in the hiring process and the firing process. The Personnel Commission was designed to protect this very principle – it is the gatekeeper to prevent injustice.

Examples of unfair practices could be giving jobs to personal friends who are not qualified for positions or firing someone without cause.

Last week, the merit system in Pasadena was eliminated by a majority vote in front of all classified PUSD workers — a way to end the system under state law. On Thursday, the school board voted unanimously to certify that vote and move forward with dismantling the system, handing over its duties to district human resources officials.

The charge to flush the system was led by Teamsters Local 911, which represents the district’s maintenance and food service workers.

Of the 900 employees ranked eligible to vote, 531 are members of the California School Employees Association, 265 are Teamsters and 104 are nonunion management employees. The employment of these workers, as well as some other hourly workers, was previously governed by the merit system, according to PUSD spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez Horvath.

“Their problem (the employees) has been with the Personnel Commission — because it’s not part of the district, it’s not really invested in the district,” Teamsters spokesman Christian Castro said. “They’re not hiring people fast enough, they can’t get candidates…(so) they’re hired, but they’re not trained enough.”

So abandoning a merit system not only won’t negatively affect students, it might even help them, Castro claimed.

Currently, there are 30 Pasadena Unified positions funded but not filled due to the commission backlog, he alleged. Vacancies mean that existing employees bear a greater burden.

Very few school districts in California have merit systems. Of the 1,026 in the state, less than 9% use the civil service model. But many of these districts are large and located within LA County, including LAUSD, Long Beach Unified, and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified.

Not all workers agree that it is better to deviate from the merit system.

“The merit system is the fairest thing,” said Shahada Swain, teaching assistant and CSEA Pasadena Chapter 434 board member. “How secure would our jobs be?”

Abandoning the merit system does not mean that hires, promotions and firings will be without merit, said Steve Miller, district human resources manager.

“All employees have due process rights – it’s clearly spelled out in the education code, the labor code and we have board policies that identify what employee rights are.

“If there are gaps in board policy, like discipline, we go back to the collective bargaining process – which means the union has the right to bargain,” Miller said. “In that sense, all employees have rights and those rights have not changed whether or not we have the merit system.”

What about hiring? As part of a merit system, candidates take a test assessing their qualifications. The best scores follow on from the interviews with the personnel commission. Under a merit-free system, applicants would continue to take a test — they would simply interview staff rather than the commission, Miller said.

“Whether on merit or not, there is always a process in place to hire the most qualified candidate,” he said.

Miller most recently worked in a district in Lawndale, which does not have a merit-based system.

Legal matters

Although the board certified the employee vote and moved forward Thursday in dismantling the merit system, legal questions remain.

The main problem is the actual vote: 308 to 125 in favor of abandoning the system. With around 900 total workers listed in the district, that means just under half voted.

Quan and Pasadena Unified attorney Jeff Marderosian clashed in Thursday’s meeting, offering complex, dueling legal interpretations.

Quan believes that for the dissolution to be successful, the Education Code requires a nod from a majority of all classified employees — not just those who vote — while Marderosian believes a majority of those who vote is necessary.

Members of the California School Employees Association spoke in favor of Quan’s interpretation at Thursday’s meeting and urged the board to get a second legal opinion.

Marderosian’s arguments about legislative intent ultimately swayed the council. He said he called the author of the bill that introduced the voting rules against a merit system – a former San Bernadino school official – who confirmed to Marderosian that his intention was to only require a majority vote.

“If you’re looking for a supermajority, I think he would have been very, very specific,” board chairman Lawrence Torres said of Joseph Woodford, former assistant superintendent of the City of Unified School District. San Bernardino.

Board Vice Chairman Patrick Cahalan said he recognizes the law is a big trouble. He said the board has tried to remain neutral throughout this process because what is clear is that employees have the final say in the matter.

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