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Bonita Teacher Union Battles Superintendent

June 22, 1986|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIMAS — In an ongoing battle to oust Bonita Unified School District Supt. James T. Johnson Jr., the district teachers' union has filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission charging that Johnson violated election laws by writing an official memorandum last fall in support of two incumbent school board candidates.

The Oct. 24, 1985, memo, signed with Johnson's initials under a school district heading, urges management employees to make contributions "in the $10 to $20 range" for the campaigns of Robert Green and Frank Bingham, both of whom were reelected handily by voters in the district's cities of San Dimas and La Verne the following month.

The Bonita Unified Teachers Assn. already had filed a similar complaint against Johnson in April with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing and earlier this year collected more than 1,000 signatures from parents and teachers demanding that he be suspended.

In Office 16 Years

Charging that Johnson is "a dinosaur in education," union leaders charge that the superintendent has been unresponsive to their concerns and unwilling to share the power they say he has wielded autonomously for the past 16 years.

But Johnson, noting that district superintendents routinely support school board candidates, said in a recent interview that it was the first time he had used an official memo to make such an endorsement.

Denying that his action was improper, Johnson charged that teachers have exploited the memo as a way to gain the upper hand in a bitter contract feud that lasted most of the past school year.

In fact, both district officials and union leaders agree--but for different reasons--that the memo itself is only a small element in a much deeper rift between teachers and administrators that has shaken the Bonita district this year.

The Bonita district has been troubled all year by what one union leader called "a siege mentality" with these crises: a breakdown in salary negotiations, resignation of the union's past president, a dispute over lottery funds, a critical reaccreditation report for one high school, charges of alleged Health Code violations at an elementary school and complaints by parents that the district has been insensitive to their request for a new school.

Low-Wealth District

All of these problems occurred against the backdrop of a growing student population that has made solutions in this traditionally "low-wealth" district even harder to come by, administrators said.

Bonita ranks last among the 42 unified school districts in Los Angeles County in dollars spent per student, according to figures supplied by the office of the Los Angeles County superintendent of public schools.

But when it comes to pinpointing the problem or seeking specific remedies, many teachers and district officials agree that the dispute is rooted more in conflicting tactics than in concrete disagreements.

"There's a very strong feeling of frustration, but the teachers have a very difficult time identifying in a unified way what that frustration is," said Skip Mainiero, a professor at the University of La Verne and a former school board member.

Whether referring to the memo or the negotiation problems that left them without a contract for most of the school year, teachers frequently complain about Johnson's administrative style, which one high school instructor described as "old-style, 1950s, Eisenhower-era management."

Style Criticized

Mary K. Nichols, president of the Bonita Unified Teachers Assn. and a district teacher for 17 years, said that teachers are seeking a more participatory role in school affairs, but are being hampered by what she called Johnson's authoritarian style.

"Philosophically, the basic difference is that he believes it's necessary to maintain an adversarial relationship," said Nichols, adding that about 85% of the district's teachers are union members. "That defeats the whole purpose we're working for."

Johnson, however, contends that problems in the district stem from collective bargaining and were exacerbated when the teachers' association for the first time invited a representative from the California Teachers Assn., the state union, to sit at the bargaining table last year.

Johnson charged that the state union "targeted" his district and that teachers took "a personal-attack approach" during the contract talks, even after successful negotiations in earlier years and several tentative agreements for 1985-86 already had been reached.

"They have a goal and that is to achieve their contract on their terms with the least amount of resistance," Johnson said. "I happen to be a visible sign of resistance."

Talks to Begin Again

Although the union was able to reach a contract agreement during the final months of the school year, which ended last week, teachers will have to begin negotiations for next year's contract in July.

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