In an unprecedented move, Antioch teachers delivered a resounding vote of no-confidence in the district's superintendent this week, arguing that she is withholding money for raises, shutting them out of decisions affecting them and violating the terms of their contract.
Gary Hack, president of the Antioch Education Association, presented the results of the symbolic gesture to the school board before a capacity crowd as two teachers raised four large plastic bags bulging with ballots cast by those critical of Deborah Sims' management style. He held up one baggie containing the votes of those who support Sims.
Of the 863 teachers who voted — about 75 percent of those in the district — 837 approved the resolution of no confidence.
Hundreds of chanting teachers gathered in front of district headquarters before the meeting in a noisy display of solidarity, and once the proceedings began they paraded single-file through the rear of the board room holding hand-lettered signs aloft.
"Obviously, there is a clear concern about the ability of the superintendent to lead this district," Hack said. "The teachers have never been so upset."
Sims did not respond to attempts to reach her.
The union vote is the first of its kind in the history of the district, Hack noted, adding that the Antioch Education Association also has named Sims in a charge of unfair labor practices that it has submitted to the state.
The litany of complaints outlined in the two-page resolution of no confidence center on contract negotiations and how Sims conducts business.
One issue is the $13.2 million that the district is expected to have at its disposal by the end of this fiscal year, based on the California Teachers Association's analysis of its budget.
Add those discretionary funds to the 3 percent safety net that the state requires for financial emergencies — Antioch Unified has a 4 percent reserve — and the district has more than $17.5 million at its disposal, critics say.
"Their argument cannot be an ability to pay," Hack said.
Yet those whom Sims has appointed to sit at the bargaining table have refused to offer any raise beyond the annual 2.1 percent that teachers currently receive, he said. To date, the two sides have met 25 times.
In addition, teachers are wondering just how many of the district administrators and other personnel that Sims has hired are really necessary.
"They have six-figure salaries for these PR people, and that would pay for a lot of custodians and librarians that got cut," said third-grade teacher Sandy Wilbanks, noting that her classroom has been vacuumed just twice since school started.
The district is painting a much bleaker picture, however.
In an update on the grim condition of the state budget and California's economy earlier in the evening, Chief Business Official Denise Porterfield predicted that the district would have to make more cuts before June.
One contributing factor is declining enrollment: Antioch Unified lost about $2.3 million last year in attendance-based revenue, she said.
The union and district began talks 13 months ago about proposed revisions to teachers' 2007-08 contract, but they reached an impasse in the spring. A state-appointed mediator in early June tried without success to broker an agreement, and last week he recommended that they proceed to the next stage.
The process known as fact-finding starts with the union and school district choosing a neutral party to lead a three-person panel that listens to each side present its case.
If there still is no meeting of the minds, the district legally can impose its last, best offer and the union can opt to strike.
This is the first time in memory that Antioch Unified has not settled a teachers' contract in the same school year that negotiations began, Hack said.
Teachers also are rankled by the way Sims runs the district.
"Superintendent Sims controls the whole game," Hack said before the meeting. "All administrators are dependent on direction from her office."
Unlike her predecessor who solved problems collaboratively, he said, she embraces a top-down style.
Following her evaluation earlier this year, Sims received a one-year extension on her contract, which now expires June 30, 2011, and comes with an annual salary of $182,712.
Board President Walter Ruehlig said he was a little surprised by the results of the vote.
"Ninety-seven percent is pretty attention-grabbing," he said. "Certainly it's cause for concern, to say the least."
On the other hand, teachers cast their ballots when emotions are running high because of the impasse, he said. Settle the contract and the mood in the district will improve, Ruehlig said.
District spokeswoman Deidra Powell-Williams noted that the superintendent is responsible for balancing students' needs while ensuring that the district remains solvent.
The district has established a larger-than-required safety net because a Sacramento consulting firm that specializes in school finance has advised the district to maintain more than the minimum, she said. Many school districts are bumping up their reserves to as much as 6 percent, Powell-Williams added.
She also rebutted union claims that Sims acted unilaterally in assigning some special education teachers an additional class without relieving them of other duties.
The number of minutes that resource teachers are to work is governed by their contract — not the superintendent — yet some have been shouldering more than their fair share without receiving extra pay, Powell-Williams said. Sims wants to ensure that the workload is evenly distributed, she said.
The same goes for charges that Sims imposed a new rule requiring teachers to produce a doctor's note if they are sick five or more days; the superintendent simply is enforcing an existing policy, Powell-Williams said.
She also disputes the union's allegation that Sims violated union members' legal right to stage protests on district property when she prevented them from distributing fliers on campuses at back-to-school nights this year.
As for criticism of Sims' management approach, Powell-Williams said the superintendent has included teachers in some of her projects, including her long-range ideas for improving education dubbed "Blueprint for Excellence."
Because union representatives typically are not involved in these discussions, however, they might not realize that some of their colleagues are, she said.
All that Prospects High School teacher Julie Cullimore knows is that she and other colleagues never received replies after e-mailing Sims to find out more about her plan.
"We're still trying to figure out what the blueprint is," she said.
Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.