Next month, Lodi native Jeff Johnston will take the reins as the Lodi teachers' union president. It couldn't have come at a more tumultuous time.
Members are in the throes of renewed negotiations after denying their tentative labor contract by 80 percent of the vote.
The district continues to find ways to balance its budget largely on the backs of personnel. It is facing a $30 million shortfall heading into next school year.
And the people he represents want leadership change. The Lodi Education Association has taken a no-confidence vote in Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer, calling on the school board to do something about it.
Right after the April 16 election, people kept asking Johnston if he was excited about being elected to the top union spot. Weeks later, he's still not sure how to answer that question and remains humbled about being chosen.
He said he's nervous and even scared about what the state's budget is going to do to Lodi Unified's classrooms and the students they house. "I really do pray our school board members can reach a resolution and get on with the business we're here to do, and that's to teach kids."
The union president position is a full-time job, so Johnston will be temporarily released from both his teaching and athletic director duties at Tokay High School.
Johnston, who is currently in his third term as union vice president, recently sat down with education reporter Jennifer Bonnett to discuss the steps that led him to presidency. They started when he was a sophomore at Lodi High School, where he graduated from in 1988.
Why are you the right person to lead the union in these fiscally dismal times?
Short answer: Experience.
I got involved in the association because I wanted to work with teachers. I saw it as an opportunity to continue to work with teachers.
As I began to examine my goals, I found myself asking, "Why not me?" and started moving through the ranks. Ultimately, when it came to this election as president, I felt the association needs one who is deeply understanding of the issues — the economic issues and the issues with our students — in order to hopefully reach a solution with some of the issues facing it.
What have you learned as vice president?
First of all, I need to give a lot of credit to (outgoing president) Sue Kenmotsu. She is amazingly dynamic and patient, and an extremely knowledgeable person when it comes to issues of education.
Besides the nuts and bolts of labor law and organizing … I'm not saying I'm good at it, but I'm getting better in listening to people and trying to find common ground. If you can find a point of nexus, you can find a point to build. It's one of the most complicated things someone can learn in this job.
How did you get involved in the union?
It was probably about 10 years ago. I was working closely with a colleague on campus about school-site issues. I would talk to Ed (Sani) about what was going on and started attending representative council meetings as an observer. Then I agreed to become an official member.
I got involved in executive board and asked to be appointed to the bargaining team. I started attending California Teacher Association trainings. The rest, as they say …
Why did you become a teacher?
Want a name? Joann Gavin, my sophomore honors English class.
She was funny, engaging and challenging. I thought to myself, if a teacher can have that much impact on an average Joe like me, how fantastic is that? I loved to read long before I got to her class, but she opened up a whole new world of literacy.
Jeff Johnston at a glanceAge: 40.
Resident of Lodi.
Married to wife Nanci, who is also a district teacher.
Education: Bachelor of Arts in English, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Master's in curriculum and instruction, California State University, Sacramento.
Professional single-subject credential, University of California, Davis.
1988 graduate of Lodi High School.
Started teaching career at Lodi High in 1994, but moved to Tokay High two years later.
Currently teaches English at Tokay, where he is also the athletic director.
Has served as union vice president and as a member of the bargaining team.
What's the union president do?— Is the official spokesperson for the association, including oral communication at regular board meetings.
— Presides at all meetings of and prepares the agenda for the association, the representative council and executive board.
— Proposes the procedures for grievance processing for ratification by the executive board and the representative council.
— Receives a $2,000 stipend for days worked beyond his/her contractual year.
— Works 215 days, compared to a regular school year.
Source: Lodi Education Association bylaws
I knew before I left her class I was going to be an English major, teach English and teach at Lodi High.
The union still hasn't approved its tentative working contract with the district. What are the major obstacles to an agreement?
There isn't a teacher I've talked to that doesn't believe settlement is possible. Teachers want to know if this crisis begins to turn around, the district will respect them enough to restore the cuts made to our classrooms. I believe that the school board and the district administrators understand that.
I think we can reach an agreement. I don't know if there are any obstacles to reach it. Teachers are willing to settle.
What is the possibility of the Lodi Education Association members going on strike?
(Deep breath.) Strike is an absolutely last-ditch, unavoidable, meteor crash. It's cataclysmic.
It is possible we could go on strike? Absolutely. It's within the rights of our members after a process.
Do I believe it's going to be necessary? Absolutely not.
What would you say to critics who believe teachers are already fairly paid and should be more flexible?
Come spend a week with a fifth-grade teacher. Not a day, a day is not enough to understand every aspect of what a teacher does. You need a week to see what a teacher goes through: a nurse, counselor, educator, friend, mother, encourager, disciplinarian — and it's not going to stop when the teacher goes home and spends hours grading papers, preparing for tomorrow, making sure they're doing what quality teaching is all about.
Then look at their calendar and see that their summer it is comprised of a week of training here and there, and a week preparing their walls to make sure they're inviting, entertaining and educational.
Then ask what that classroom is going to look like with five, eight or 10 more students in it? What will learning look like? How will we reach your children with this math concept?
We're not opposed to fair pay, as long as it's fair.
What advice would you give a young person thinking about a career in teaching?
I would tell them that this is probably one of the most challenging and rewarding careers that anyone could choose, but these are some of the most difficult times the profession has ever seen.
And, while I would never persuade someone from becoming a teacher, I would tell them to ask themselves if this is right for me now.
I know we're a ways from school board candidate endorsements, but do you have any predictions for the November race?
None whatsoever. I think I'll quote (board president and possible incumbent) Mr. Richard Jones: "It's way too early for that."