A state commission has ruled that Bonita Unified School District Supt. James T. Johnson Jr. acted improperly in writing an official memorandum soliciting campaign contributions from district employees for two school board incumbents in 1985.
In response to a complaint from the Bonita Unified Teachers Assn., the Commission on Teacher Credentialing found that Johnson's actions "warrant disciplinary action" in the form of a "private admonition" on his administrative credentials.
The teachers, who had complained early in 1986 that Johnson had wrongly used his position and school supplies to try to influence the election, received notification of the decision in a one-paragraph letter from the commission on Feb. 17.
The complaint stemmed from an Oct. 24, 1985, memo urging management employees to make contributions "in the $10 to $20 range" to Robert Green and Frank Bingham, both of whom were easily reelected in November by voters in the district's cities of San Dimas and La Verne. The memo, which was not sent to teachers, said that contributions would be "a purely voluntary activity." But, "if you wish to help," the memo continued, "please mail the checks to Aleda (Johnson's secretary) and she'll see that they are forwarded to the proper persons."
"When we see people appear to manipulate their employees for campaign contributions, we're offended," said Dan Harden, vice president of the teachers' union. "Is that the kind of thing they would like us to teach in our classrooms?"
Johnson, who has denied that the memo was improper, refused to comment on the commission's ruling.
His attorney, Hank Marsh, described the issue as a private personnel matter and said that any comment would be inappropriate. "Our position is that to even discuss this or print it in any way is an invasion of (Johnson's) rights of privacy."
The Commission on Teacher Credentialing is a state agency charged with issuing teaching and administrative credentials to instructors and officials in California's public schools, as well as reviewing allegations of misconduct among credential holders.
Walter W. Taylor, an administrator in the agency's professional standards division, described a private admonition as "about the mildest" adverse conclusion that the commission can reach, but added that it indicates "a particular action is not acceptable and should not be done again on pain of a more severe penalty."
Those penalties, he said, could include suspension or revocation of a teacher's or administrator's credentials.
Taylor refused to comment on whether Johnson had been admonished by the commission or whether the superintendent had even been the subject of a complaint.
However, letters supplied by members of the teachers' union show that the commission had received their complaint against Johnson and that the allegations had been reviewed at several meetings.
The Feb. 17 letter from Taylor to Mary K. Nichols, president of the teachers' union, says that the commission "has considered the allegations of misconduct which you filed, and having found them to be true and to warrant disciplinary action against that individual, has imposed a private admonition on that individual's general administrative credential."
Although the letter does not refer to Johnson by name, union officials say he is the only individual against whom they have filed a complaint.
That complaint, sent by Nichols in a letter to the state commission on April 17, 1986, charged that "James T. Johnson has demonstrated unfitness to hold any credential authorizing administrative services in public schools" because of his efforts to solicit contributions with an interoffice school district memo.
In a December response to Nichols, Taylor said that "final action regarding Mr. Johnson's general administrative services credential is still pending. Action respecting that credential will be taken by the commission at its Feb. 5-6 meeting . . . "
Sue Moran, president of the Bonita school board, said that as far as the district is concerned the issue of the memo was resolved in private personnel meetings last year, but declined to discuss any action that the board might have taken.
"For anyone to be discussing it is a violation of civil rights," she said.
Concern over the memo was first expressed early in 1986, when the teachers' union attempted to pursue accusations against Johnson through the county District Attorney's office. After several consultations, teachers said they were told that the district attorney had no jurisdiction over the case.
Teachers then collected more than 1,000 signatures demanding Johnson's suspension and presented their concerns in a letter to the Bonita school board last February.
Then, after filing a complaint with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the union in June filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission charging that Johnson had violated the Political Reform Act by using the influence of his position to unfairly favor incumbent candidates.
Charges Called 'Unfounded'
The state Fair Political Practices Commission ruled in August that the charges were "unfounded," a spokeswoman said.
Johnson has maintained that the union has exploited the memo as a way to gain the upper hand in a bitter contract feud that dragged on most of last year and that has erupted again this year.
"The issue is collective bargaining," Johnson said in an interview Tuesday. "It has been from the beginning."
But union leaders, while admitting that the memo is a symbol of their frustrations, said they were not trying to exploit the situation.
"It's the principle of the thing," Nichols said. "The most important thing is that this never happen again."