Petaluma, [California] is one of those idyllic small cities (population 58,000) that dot Route 101 on the way north from the Golden Gate Bridge through the wine country.
The Petaluma City Schools district has trimmed millions from its budget over the last two years, as the deficit-ridden California state government has decreased its local support by 25 percent. The cuts have meant layoffs for district employees at all levels, from teachers to playground supervisors. In response, parents and concerned Petalumans have stepped forward to try to fill the non-teaching gaps, volunteering their time to maintain school services. The volunteers have … also stepped in to perform jobs eliminated by budget cuts. But those positions are unionized by the California School Employees’ Association (CSEA)—and that’s where the problems started.
When volunteers began to help answer phones in the office and support the school librarian … CSEA Local 212 president Loretta Kruusmagi immediately objected. … Kruusmagi betrays not the least concern for the kids her union supposedly serves when she glowers: “As far as I’m concerned, they never should have started this thing. Noon-duty people [lunchtime and playground assistants]—those are instructional assistants. We had all those positions. We don’t have them anymore, but those are our positions. Our stand is you can’t have volunteers, they can’t do our work.”
The school-district leadership finds itself caught between the volunteers and the union, seeking to pacify both parents and the CSEA. Meanwhile, important positions lost to budget cuts that volunteers could handle remain unfilled. Deputy Superintendent Steve Bolman is left to quote from the union contract and labor law: “It’s not policy, this is law. [Volunteers] can’t do work ‘usually, ordinarily or regularly done by classified employees.’”
The volunteers are rightly furious. Cathy Edmondson, the parent of a Petaluma Junior High student, and a volunteer who helps around the school office, retorted: “I guess the anger that I feel about it is, even though the union has contractual rights to what goes on, they don’t have the right to abridge my rights as a parent, volunteer, and taxpayer.”
The work of volunteers in providing and supporting local services has been a hallmark of American citizenship since the nation’s founding. Alexis de Tocqueville described this characteristic… But Tocqueville never met Loretta Kruusmagi.
As local-government budgets feel the financial squeeze, this do-it-yourself ethos is making a comeback throughout the country…. Are [the unions] willing to be part of a collaborative solution, or does their self-interest trump all?