Union 'Bumping' Rules Spell Trouble For Outer Mission Elementary School

Meet Sandra Rios. A 34-year-old mother of three grade-school children, Rios speaks both English and Spanish. According to her colleagues, she's also the linchpin of life at Longfellow Elementary School.

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Sandra Rios, secretary at Longfellow Elementary School, is about to lose her job because of puzzling union seniority rules.
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Rios is the school secretary at Longfellow, located in the Outer Mission. It's a deceptively bare job title. In addition to standard clerical work, she keeps teachers provided with books and materials, deals with the occasional potty-training mishap, performs first aid (the school's nurse only works two and a half days per week), and acts as a liaison to Spanish-speaking parents unfamiliar with public-school bureaucracy.

Carmen Melendez, teacher of a bilingual third grade class, describes Rios' role this way: "She runs the school." All the more unfortunate, according to Melendez and others, that Rios is about to lose her job because of union seniority rules that could lead to her being replaced by someone with no particular familiarity with or affection for children.

"Everyone here is just completely reeling," says Ame Szasz, a third grade teacher at Longfellow. "If any of the kids need anything, they go to Sandra. It's devastating to our community to lose her."

Rios is on the block to be a casualty to the Service Employees International Union practice of "bumping." According to union work rules, laid-off employees have the opportunity to displace, or "bump," other union members with less seniority from their jobs. As a result of imminent layoffs of clerical workers in the city's Department of Public Health, school secretaries (who share the same job classification as the Public Health workers) are finding themselves bumped by the Public Health employees.

School officials say this presents a number of problems. The main issue is that the job description of a school secretary -- who sits at the crossroads of the school community, dealing with students, teachers, parents, and administrators -- differs fundamentally from that of a clerk who dwells in some lonely file-room elsewhere in the city bureaucracy. "They're two different types of skills," says Longfellow Principal Phyllis Matsuno.

Another question is whether Rios' replacement will be bilingual -- an essential attribute, Matsuno says, in a school where one-third of the students, and many parents, are more comfortable speaking Spanish. Matsuno says she hasn't yet been told if the worker who will bump Rios speaks Spanish or not.

Rios has been told that this is her last week at Longfellow. "It's sad for both sides," she says. "The people who are coming here, I'm sure they don't want to be here, either." She adds, "It's not a regular office job. ... You need to be able to deal with that kid who wets his pants, or needs to be pulled out of the classroom because he's having a tantrum, and have patience with the kid who comes in every day for that Band-Aid."

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