San Francisco High-School Teachers Approve Contract, Amid Ongoing Tensions

Re Local Catholic leaders applaud the contract vote and public debate surrounding the issue as a step forward for Archbishop Cordileone, though the teachers' union secured key concessions.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

SAN FRANCISCO — After months of tense, high-profile negotiations — centering on resistance to an archdiocesan effort to reinforce Catholic identity — teachers at four Catholic high schools approved the collective-bargaining agreement Church officials negotiated with American Federation of Teachers Local 2240.

On Aug. 19, union leaders announced that members had ratified the contract. It incorporates concessions won from Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco during months of talks that drew national headlines, as well as a preamble that reflects his focus on the schools' religious mission.

The contract preamble states, “Teachers are expected to support the purpose of our Catholic schools in such a way that their personal conduct will not adversely impact their ability to teach in our Catholic high schools.”

Teachers who might face disciplinary action or termination will be “subject to the grievance procedure.” 

In a statement released after the vote was announced, Archbishop Cordileone thanked the negotiators for their work and praised the 236 full-time teachers at the four archdiocesan high schools: Archbishop Riordan, Marin Catholic, Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep and Junipero Serra, marking the talks as an important milestone for the local Church.

“I want to thank the union and the administration negotiating team for their hard work over the past few months in coming to this agreement,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

“They have negotiated just wages and benefits for our high-school teachers, who are among the finest teachers in northern California.

“I also very much appreciate that the negotiations included a rich discussion about the mission and purpose of Catholic education and vital role that our high-school teachers play in carrying out that mission.” 

Gina Jaeger, the union president, singled out union negotiators "for standing tall in support of dignity and fairness. Now it is time to heal after a tumultuous year.”

In its Aug. 20 press release, the union local noted: "The close vote, 90-80, reflected divisions among faculty and the broader community." 

San Francisco Catholic leaders who publicly backed the archbishop’s efforts to bolster the religious character of the Catholic high schools view the contract vote and public debate surrounding the issue as an important step forward.

“Now people applying for positions will know what the clear expectations are, both for teaching and for their public lives,” Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of San Francisco-based Ignatius Press, told the Register.

“The contract is good for the teachers we have, good for future applicants and good for the Church.”

Mary Anne Cresalia, the mother of nine children who have all attended Marin Catholic in Kentfield, said she had been “shocked” by the protests against the archbishop’s efforts and had hoped to see the contract highlight the schools’ religious character and the teachers’ obligations to uphold it.

“The reason why my husband and I sent our children to Marin Catholic is because it is thoroughly Catholic,” Cresalia told the Register. “We would not make the sacrifices to pay the tuition if it wasn’t.”

Tim Navone, the president of Marin Catholic, acknowledged that “there were major concessions on both sides. When people have a strong difference of opinion that is why we have negotiation.”

Navone signaled his intent to set the debate aside as  the community began a new school year. 

“What I am  most happy about is that our campus feels unified and excited going into the school year,” Navone told the Register, noting that the teachers will finally receive wage increases after waiting four years.

Meanwhile, Cathedral Prep chaplain Father Mark Doherty said he would seek to ease tensions at his school by “initiating one-on-one relationships with teachers, staff and students.”

“I see my role as a summons to rebuild trust,” the chaplain told the Register.


Hard-Fought Agreement

The explosive, politicized dispute between Archbishop Cordileone and his critics within the high schools erupted into public view in February.

Teachers, parents and students openly attacked contract language proposed by the archdiocese that directed members of the faculty to avoid public statements and actions that violated Church teaching and would undermine their role in the classroom. 

Opponents claimed the “morality clauses” and new language in the faculty handbook, which asked teachers to affirm Catholic doctrine on sensitive matters like homosexual relations, would undermine the schools’ culture of acceptance and provoke a witch hunt against persons with same-sex attraction.

Hundreds of people joined public protests and launched a petition drive. State legislators and local city officials also weighed into the dispute, and prominent self-identified Catholic leaders signed a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle that called on Pope Francis to remove the archbishop.

In February, Archbishop Cordileone wrote a letter to the high-school teachers that sought to reassure them that he did not intend to drive anyone out of the schools, but critics were not appeased.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding of what constitutes an authentic Catholic school,” Archbishop Cordileone told the Register during an Aug. 17 interview in advance of the Aug. 19 contract vote.

Referencing claims that his proposed contract language would result in “targeting people who are not in agreement with our sexual morality,” he said that such predictions reflected “a distorted understanding of our teaching.”

The Church asks believers to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” he said. The pushback against his attempts to clarify Catholic doctrine failed to recognize that all the teachings of the faith are part of an integrated vision of human flourishing, in which specific moral values complement rather than contradict one another.

To emphasize this point, he cited Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si, which presents the human and natural world as a unified expression of the love of the Holy Trinity and warns against “the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives.”


Legal Landscape

While critics challenged references to moral teachings in the contract as an attack on local community values, they also rejected proposed language that described teachers as “ministers.” The reference to ministers was removed and does not appear in the final contract.

However, the initial designation of teachers as ministers stirred concern that the archdiocese sought to leverage the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Hosanna Tabor to strengthen its power to discipline or remove teachers who opposed Church teaching outside of the classroom.

In Hosanna Tabor, a landmark religious-liberty case, the high court affirmed the right of faith-based schools to hire and fire teachers without interference from the courts.

“The entire nation is watching this,” Sal Curcio, a teacher and union representative, told San Francisco magazine in its August 2015 issue, in a reference to broad media coverage of the contract dispute.

“If the archbishop can break a union in San Francisco — or render it useless by pushing an agenda that takes away the rights of teachers and also hurts the students — then they can do this everywhere.”

Yet union representatives also acknowledged that case law supports the rights of all employers, secular and religious, to make employment decisions that preserve and promote their mission.

In a letter to the union membership after the final contract was approved on July 31, union leader Lisa Dole made clear that “if personal conduct becomes public and is viewed as adversely impacting the school, the teacher can be disciplined or terminated. That is established case law.”

Dole did not respond to the Register's request for comment following the Aug.19 vote.

Legal experts say that the “ministerial exception,” unanimously affirmed in Hosanna Tabor, applies to school principals, chaplains and teachers of religion, but it may not shield schools when they remove a teacher in another academic department. For that reason, employment contracts, job descriptions and performance evaluations in religious schools also reference the fact that the teacher is engaged in the ministry of education.

“It is a fundamental freedom that any religious society ought to have control over the inculcation of the faith in the children, both by instruction and by modeling the behavior,” Martin Nussbaum, a lawyer who advises Catholic dioceses, told the Register.

“This is fundamental under Church doctrine and under the ministerial exception, which is a subset of first-amendment doctrine of church autonomy.”


The Contract Language

The final language in the contract, approved July 31, states “that the purpose of Catholic schools is to affirm Catholic values through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Further, “teachers are expected to support the purpose of our Catholic schools in such a way that their personal conduct will not adversely impact their ability to teach in our Catholic high schools.”

The contract states that “disputes about teacher conduct on and off the job are subject to the grievance procedure to determine whether such conduct has adversely impacted the teacher’s ability to teach in our Catholic high schools.”

Another passage directs union members to “recognize the unique nature of the archdiocesan high-school system, in that it is Roman Catholic, committed to provide education within the framework of Catholic principles; that Catholic teachings and precepts shall remain paramount throughout the term of this agreement; and that nothing in the agreement shall be construed as interfering in any way with the superintendent's functions and duties, insofar as they are canonical.”

In contrast, the initial iteration of contract language asked the teachers to “acknowledge that all faculty and staff are ministers engaged in this religious mission and that they teach and educate, and thus serve their ministry of Catholic education, not only by the performance of their job duties, but also by their word and example, inside and outside the classroom, on and off campus.”


‘The Right to Protect Its Mission’

During his interview with the Register, Archbishop Cordileone defended his ongoing efforts to strengthen the Catholic identity of the four high schools, while accommodating teachers’ concerns regarding the contract language he had initially proposed.

“The teachers have the right to pursue the usual grievance procedures when they feel they have been wrongfully treated. The contract reflects that. 

“But the school also has the right to protect its mission and to contract with teachers who will support the mission of the school.”

“Whatever wording works that we can agree upon that respects those two principles is fine with me,” he explained.

While portions of the contract have been heavily rewritten to modify or remove language that highlighted the religious mission of the school, and the faculty handbook is still under review, Archbishop Cordileone is content with the final contract.

“It was important to make clear the teachers should not give a public counter-witness to the mission of schools,” he said, noting language in the final contract that “speaks about the responsibility of the teachers, in their personal conduct, to not adversely impact their ability” to serve as credible role models.

Archbishop Cordileone also made clear that he would continue with his plans to revitalize Catholic education and place teachers at the forefront of the New Evangelization.

“The U.S. bishops have said explicitly that the schools are an integral part of the evangelizing mission of the Church, and the contract language now says that the purpose of Catholic schools is to affirm Catholic values through the Gospel,” he noted.


Lessons Learned

Asked whether in hindsight he might have taken a different path to advance his education initiative — one that might have provoked less resistance — Archbishop Cordileone acknowledged that there were lessons to be learned.

It is important, he said, to “speak with the school leadership in the diocese, to devise a program of deeper faith formation of the teachers, to offer incentives for the teachers to do that and then engage them in dialogue.”

Reflecting on the past nine months, he also recalled the fresh insights he garnered during conversations with teachers, who shared their struggles to present the faith to students formed by a secular culture.

But the hostile critics, who painted the archbishop as an outlier, also highlight the challenge that confronts every Church leader as the Catholic faith and mainstream culture move further apart.

“There is already talk about removing the tax-exempt status of faith-based organizations,” the archbishop noted, in a reference to U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s remarks during the 2015 oral arguments for the four cases that led to the civil legalization of same-sex marriage.

But Archbishop Cordileone said he would continue to stand his ground on the fundamental issues.

“I will not accept that the schools have to renounce their right to hire and fire for the sake of their mission,” he stated.

“Every organization has that right. There is no reason our schools should have to give up that right.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.