After several weeks of acrimonious debate and lobbying by union and district representatives, Glendale Unified School District classified employees will begin voting Friday on whether to abolish the district's 24-year-old merit system.
The voting, which will take about a week, could shut down by June 30 the system through which employees are hired, promoted, disciplined and fired. It could affect more than 1,000 district classified employees--clerks, maintenance workers, managers and others who are not certificated.
Leaders of the effort to abolish the system acknowledged that their chance of success is a long shot because they must garner support from more than half of the employees eligible to vote, and a heavy voter turnout is not expected.
They accused merit system officials of employing scare tactics to sway employee votes. And they insisted that even if the system is retained, the effort to abolish it will lead to reforms in personnel procedures.
"Whether we win this election or not, the employees have exhibited power," said Travers Devine, a field representative for the California School Employees Assn., the classified employees' union. "If the Personnel Commission remains intact, they are going to pay more attention now to what employees are saying."
The merit system was initiated in the district in 1966 to address flagrant patronage problems in personnel practices, Devine and others said.
The system is administered by a three-member Personnel Commission that oversees hiring and testing procedures, promotions and employee grievances. The commissioners are appointed. They do not have to answer to the Glendale Board of Education or superintendent, and they appoint their own personnel director.
Disgruntled classified employees, led by the Committee for Responsible Personnel Practices and the CSEA, have complained that the system has been marred by chronic problems. They say that testing for jobs is cumbersome and unfair and that commissioners know little about employees' concerns and often simply "rubber-stamp" the recommendations of the personnel director.
Classified employees have been trying for months to abolish the system. A petition drive late last year collected enough signatures to call a vote on the issue.
But the district's three personnel commissioners have warned that employees could lose many job protections if they turn personnel decisions over to the Board of Education and the district superintendent--protections that include the right to appeal board decisions to an independent body.
Personnel commissioners last week sent letters to classified employees, encouraging them to vote to retain the system. The commission also sponsored several meetings at which a Garden Grove school district administrator challenged the system's critics and warned employees they could lose job security.
Greg Marvel, personnel director in Garden Grove and an ex-CSEA field representative, told employees that without a merit system, they would be subject to the whims of the school board and the district administrators. He also told them that their only remaining safety net would be the CSEA, which represents only 30% of the district's classified employees.
"If you put all your eggs in the basket of collective bargaining, you've thrown away all the rights and protections that come with the merit system," Marvel said. "Don't throw out something that gives you benefits. Fix it and make it work right."
Devine and others, who acknowledged that the Committee for Responsible Personnel Practices also sent out letters last week seeking support for its position, labeled Marvel's comments and the commissioners' mailings as scare tactics to sway support.
"The letters and the meetings were designed to elicit fears about layoffs and other procedures," said Mary Meehan, a computer programmer for the district and president of the local CSEA. "They've been saying that without a merit system, the district can do anything they want to employees. That's not what would happen."
"It was a scary letter," agreed Ellen Walley, a classified clerk at Roosevelt Junior High School. She said she knew little about the merit system before attending the meetings last week. "It was a shock."
Meehan and Devine said they do not know why the commissioners, who are each paid about $15 every time they meet, are trying so diligently to retain the system.
The commissioners said they had not taken sides on the issue, but considered the merit system necessary to ensure employees' rights. They said they were required by law to inform the employees about the system through mailings and meetings.
They said they thought that classified employees needed to better communicate their needs to the commission, and suggested that the recent selection of a new personnel director could help quell dissatisfaction.
"The intent of the material sent out was to be an evenhanded exposition on the pros and cons of the merit system," said Michael Myers, a personnel commissioner and a Los Angeles attorney. "If giving up protections frightens people, I can't do anything about that."