The Santa Maria-Bonita School District chapter of the California School Employees Association has voted down the adoption of a merit hiring system, according to results presented to the board of trustees Wednesday.

The results indicate overwhelming opposition to the new hiring system for classified union members.

"I think the system broke down and we were forced to take [on] this effort," said Matthew Harris, president of the school district's CSEA chapter, who spoke during public comment at the beginning of the meeting. "My executive board was a little shocked it got as far as it did and most people in CSEA were shocked it got to a vote – in most cases it didn’t get that far."

Approximately 36 percent of the union's membership – 337 members — voted in last week's election. Seventy-seven percent – 262 members – voted against adopting the hiring system; 23 percent – 77 members – were in favor.

Likened to the Federal Civil Service, proponents of the merit system argued that the system would have injected much-needed equity in the hiring process along with protection against discrimination, equal compensation and an impartial hearing of appeals stemming from disciplinary actions. Had CSEA members opted to adopt the merit system, Santa Maria-Bonita would have joined more than 100 other California merit districts (including Lompoc Unified and the Santa Barbara County Education Office).

"Hopefully we can work with the district to incorporate some of that in our contract language," he said. "I think there are some important principles in the merit system we can put here."

With the system rejected, Santa Maria-Bonita will continue using their existing hiring process. Any applicant who meets the minimum qualifications is able to apply and test for a job with the district; individuals that test at 70 percent or higher on the classified exam are invited to interview. The decision on who to hire will remain with the district as opposed to the independent personnel panel the merit system sought to implement.

Patty Grady, assistant superintendent for human resources, said the results of the vote made a strong statement regarding attitudes toward the proposal.

"I feel that our Human Resources Department does a great job of screening out applicants and making sure that the best person is put into a position," she said, adding that the district is open to collaborating with the union on addressing their concerns.

"As long as we can get those concerns on the table as a unit, [we can] begin to work on those and make it better not just for our employees, but for our students too."

Harris, who spearheaded the union's push to switch to the merit system, said he will continue the push for greater equity and better treatment of classified employees regardless of the vote. While he has already begun collecting signatures from union members to bring the petition back to the board, Harris said CSEA is willing to work with the district to address the situation.

"I'm here to work with you; so is my negotiations team and executive board," he said. " I hope that we don't have to go through this again. It's going to take a [collaborative] effort; I want that to happen and want to be a part of that."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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