As a stay-at-home mother, Vanessa Madrid has the luxury of donating lots of time to her daughter's Covina preschool, preparing lunches, aiding teachers, attending the Head Start program's parent meetings and joining its advisory group.
She said she was delighted when the other parents elected her as their representative to the board of Options, a government-funded provider of preschool and after-school care to 9,000 low-income San Gabriel Valley children.
"I just thought it was going to be fun; I was going to get to meet parents," said Madrid, 25, whose 4-year-old daughter, Daisy, has been enrolled in Options' Manzanita preschool since the fall. "I'm not one that tries to start any drama."
And yet, Madrid finds herself at the center of one.
She was banned from the parents council last month after participating in a union news conference with some of Options' teachers, who have been working without a contract for seven months and complained that management was being unfair in negotiations. "How was I doing anything bad?" Madrid asked.
"She was doing things that were divisive and involving parents in the union thing in ways that were contrary to what she ought to be doing as a policy council member," replied Cliff Marcussen, a former preschool teacher who founded the nonprofit Options in 1981. He said he and his staff did not take action against Madrid but that the parents themselves chose to vote her off the council.
But others have spoken out in support of Madrid. And what began as a rather ordinary contract dispute about issues such as seniority and a union security clause has become a deeper debate over parental involvement and free speech.
"Now I feel it's kind of personal, because what if that was me that was kicked out? They're picking on the parents," said Claudia Ulloa, 28, of West Covina, whose 5-year-old son is in an Options Head Start program.
Officials at Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents about 450 of Options' employees, have stoked the flames, circulating fliers about Madrid's removal and recruiting parents, teachers and public officials to appear uninvited at a board meeting last month.
Assemblyman Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) said in a statement that he was "deeply disturbed" by Madrid's removal and called on the board to reverse it.
Marcussen shrugged off the political pressure as "SEIU standard playbook." He is more concerned about the tug-of-war over parents. "Virtually all the parents who are actively involved are coming from classes where the teacher is a really strong union person," he said. "I think those parents are being used. I think they're being told things that are not true."
Several parents who agreed to interviews said they don't know the details of the contract dispute, beyond general descriptions that it's about "security" and "fairness." But their teachers seem stressed by the negotiations, and they don't want to lose good teachers.
"I feel that if I could do anything to help out the teacher, I would," said Sergio De Santos, a Covina plumber with one child in the program and one who graduated from Options and is doing well in elementary school. "You've got to play bounce the ball back to each other. If they do a good job, they should be treated good."
SEIU brought parents into the fray, first by asking them to sign a letter expressing general support for teachers, then by calling a boycott, asking them to keep their children out of the centers one December day.
"We were trying to get [management] to see how much support we have," said Ruben Ramirez, a teacher at Manzanita Elementary School in Covina and a member of the union's negotiating team. Hundreds of parents participated, he said. Madrid attended a related media event that day.
After that, Marcussen sent a letter home to all parents on Christmas Eve, sharing his views on the dispute. "My major concern is to protect the quality of the program," he wrote. "The union's ideas would hurt program quality."
After the boycott, Madrid said the director of the Options Head Start program barred her from a meeting of the parents council. The group, a mandatory part of any federally funded Head Start program, has the authority to approve the budget and hiring and firing decisions.
Marcussen would not identify the council's members for privacy reasons and said the head of the group declined to be interviewed.
Madrid was told that the other parents unanimously voted her out for violating the code of conduct, but she was never given any specifics.
"To this day, I have not found out what was said to these parents," she said. "I was not allowed to defend myself, which I think is very unfair."