Teacher unions in Orange County flexed their political muscle this week as they made good on threats to oust several school trustees and elect chosen newcomers.
In Tuesday's school board elections, 20 of the 24 candidates endorsed by Orange County teacher associations won, an 83% success rate.
The union victories included:
- The ouster of incumbents Sadie Reid-Benham and James Ward in the Santa Ana Unified School District and the election of three candidates backed by the union. Those three will constitute a voting majority on the five-member board.
- The defeat of an incumbent, the Rev. Conrad Nordquist, in the Coast Community College District. Nordquist had union backing four years ago but he fell in disfavor; he was replaced Tuesday by a new union-endorsed candidate, Paul G. Berger.
- The election of both candidates favored by the teachers' union in Huntington Beach Union High School District. They are incumbent Linda Moulton and newcomer Charmayne Bohman.
- The defeat of veteran board member I.H. (Cappy) Brown in Anaheim Union High School District and the election of both union candidates, incumbent Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach and newcomer Richard Lutz.
The victories Tuesday night are part of a trend in recent years for union-endorsed candidates to fare exceptionally well in school elections in Orange County. The teacher associations' success comes despite a history of anti-union sentiment in a predominantly conservative, predominantly Republican county.
"We are successful because we support education," Dave Jarman, president of Coast Federation of Employees, American Federation of Teachers, Local 1911, said Wednesday. "We get the support of students who vote and work for us as well as the public. We're out there working for education. We're the teachers."
But some in education expressed concern about the unions' success at the polls. Nordquist said before the election that he didn't think teachers should "control both sides of the bargaining table," in a reference to school board votes on teacher pay raises and benefits.
Another former Coast Community College District trustee, who was ousted by the union in 1983, said union-dominated boards have built-in conflicts of interest.
"It's the fox taking charge of the henhouse," Barnet Resnick said. "I'm not anti-union, but I think a board should represent the people and not a vested interest."
Union members resent the implication that they are motivated by self-interest rather than education.
"We are teachers, and our first concern is education," said Margaret Heise, a teacher at Golden View School in Huntington Beach and a member of the committee that recommends how California Teacher Assn. money and resources should be allocated in Orange County elections.
"It's an error for anyone to assume that teachers support candidates only out of self-interest," Heise said Wednesday. "Teachers want improvement of schools. We're interested in the education of our children."
She said that political action is needed to promote better schools and that the California Teachers Assn., which is the umbrella union for all the teacher organizations, works actively to get its candidates elected.
In Orange County this year, Heise said, the CTA spent a total of $20,000 in school board races.
In most of the races Tuesday, only the local school unions had a visible role. But in the Westminster Elementary School District, some residents said outside organized labor was called in to work for and support Nancy Blumenthal and Jeffrey J. Howell, the candidates endorsed by the union.
Blumenthal won, but Howell lost to Janis Smith, who said her family had received two anonymous threatening telephone calls during the final week of the election. Smith said that one of those callers told her to "get out of the race" or risk physical harm.
Marty Kahn, executive director of the West Orange County United Teachers, which includes the Westminster Teachers Assn., said Wednesday the union had no knowledge of the calls to Smith. "I know nothing about them, and I'm not going to dignify them by commenting on them," he said.
Kahn also said the teacher union did not put out a call for support from unions other than the California Teachers Assn.
The Westminster election was unusually tense, several of those involved said, because of prolonged contract talks earlier this year that almost resulted in a teacher strike. Although a settlement was reached, many teachers expressed anger at the incumbent school board and said they had hoped to elect two new board members on Tuesday.
Reid-Benham, who lost her post in Santa Ana on Tuesday, said she believed teachers turned against her because she would not support "agency shop," or mandatory union membership for all teachers.
The state headquarters of the California Teachers Assn., based in Burlingame, announced Wednesday afternoon that its statewide president, Ed Foglia, was coming to Orange County on Friday "for a victory celebration."
Milly Bettinger, spokeswoman for the CTA, said Foglia would visit three Santa Ana schools, then hold a victory party Friday afternoon for the new Santa Ana school board members.
Commenting on the union's success in Orange County elections on Tuesday, Bettinger said, "I think it shows that teachers are very careful in picking candidates who support quality education."