Members of the Santa Maria-Bonita School District's chapter of the California School Employees Association packed the Souza Student Center's boardroom Thursday afternoon for a panel discussion about whether the classified employees' union should vote to adopt a merit system.
Matthew Harris, CSEA chapter president for the district, said the push to implement the merit system came after several alternatives were ignored by the district. Harris said he previously had conversations with district officials about integrating merit system principles into the current hiring process, but none of the proposals ever made it past those initial talks.
"The district made promises to incorporate some of the merit [system] principles, but they all fell to the wayside," he said. "They did everything to avoid dealing with the problem."
In accordance with California Education Code, classified employees may implement a merit system after presenting the district with a petition and putting the question up to a vote of their members. Harris approached the district's board of trustees in June with a petition signed by 18 percent of CSEA members.
Union members were present Thursday afternoon and evening to vote on the proposal; votes will be counted Friday evening with a result presented during the board of trustees meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8. A simple majority (50 percent plus 1) is required for the proposal to pass.
Like others in attendance, Harris believes the merit system will inject equity and fairness into district hiring processes -- something he said is absent from the current process.
"I was passed over for a promotion for somebody they hand picked," he said, "The individual was put into a role that doesn't really fit their background or education. After doing some research and going to a training, I realized that [the merit system] presents a better, more fair system [of hiring.]"
Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Patty Grady said that while she understands the reasons employees are calling for a shift in hiring practices, the district does not support the union's push for the merit system.
"There's a sense of feeling [among CSEA members] that there is an unfair hiring practice," she said. "Some people feel slighted; others feel like they have been passed up for reclassification."
Under the current hiring system, any applicant who meets the minimum qualifications is able to apply and test for the position; individuals that test at 70 percent or higher on the classified exam are invited to interview.
Under the merit system, all applicants who score one of the top three ranked scores will be invited to interview. Grady said that the merit system's hiring process would place internal applicants applying for another position within the district at a disadvantage.
"Through our collective bargaining agreement, all of our [internal] applicants have the opportunity to apply and be considered for any open position before external applicants," Grady said. "Under the merit system, that's not always a guarantee."
Barbara Sandoval, president of the union's Lompoc Valley chapter, was invited to speak Thursday about her experience working in a merit system district.
"I think the merit system is a good, equitable system," Sandoval said. "It allows for some consistency and fairness that goes beyond the individuals who are working beyond the district at that point in time."
Sandoval was joined by panelist Jennie Batiste, who also touted the merit system's benefits.
"No matter who comes in as far as administrators or supervisors, everything stays in place under the merit system," she said, calling the system "fair" and "equitable" before urging members to vote their conscience.
Although Eduardo Martinez, associate superintendent for administrative services at Sanger Unified School District, agreed that finding qualified employees through testing is important, he cautioned that relying too heavily on test scores could disqualify several desirable candidates.
"I'm not in agreement that you should not just take the top scorers," he said. "That's the part that never sits well for me -- if you pass, you should at least get an interview."
This story has been updated to reflect correct information.