But what district officials are chalking up as a “mistake” has morphed into accusations of union-busting and harassment after negotiations over working conditions grew tense.
Ken Ryan and Kristen Pursley, the Adult School Teachers United union’s president and vice president, have taught English as a second language and citizenship for 28 and 25 years, respectively. They have advocated for years to finalize a contract, secure wage increases and sick leave, expand ESL courses and more.
When the two lead teachers met June 8 to start planning for next school year, a two-paragraph email arrived in their inboxes from the director of human resources for certificated employees, claiming that the pair were let go because they were part-time and “temporary,” meaning they could be terminated at any time.
The problem was, they both worked full-time, balancing their part-time teaching schedules with union responsibilities. A second email followed to acknowledge that they weren’t part-time but still asserted they were fired.
It wasn’t until Superintendent Chris Hurst emailed Pursley and Ryan three days later that the duo were told the notice was a clerical error and had been reversed.
While relieved to keep their jobs, Ryan, 66, and Pursley, 71, say they have not been given any explanation as to how the mixup occurred or why they were the only educators impacted.
“It just seems like what they really wanted was to get rid of us, and they thought this was a way to do it,” Pursley said. “I don’t mean to be jumping to conclusions, but it just doesn’t make sense to me that this is a mistake, when they so carefully made it twice.”
Raechelle Forrest, the district communications manager, said the district “take(s) this issue very seriously” but would not comment further on what happened, as there is an “ongoing investigation into the matter at the direct request of the two teachers who were affected.”
When the district decided to resume in-person classes last year, Ryan said administrators did not reopen all of the ESL program’s neighborhood school sites, in favor of consolidating them online and at adult education buildings, which has already resulted in lower attendance rates. Additionally, Ryan said some immunocompromised adult education teachers — who typically tend to be older — were denied requests for online classes, leading many to not accept assignments to teach at all.
“I don’t understand (the district’s) tortured logic,” Ryan said. “This level of abuse — not even exaggerating these days — wasn’t unusual, in terms of crazy actions by HR or misinterpretations of ed code.”
This is not the first time the district has faced allegations of wrongfully breaking off a teacher’s employment. Denise Van Hook, a Black woman who was the principal at Pinole Middle School for nine years, is suing the district and its top administrators for racial discrimination and retaliation.
She alleges that school officials failed to investigate her complaints of racially motivated harassment of her and her Black colleagues. According to Van Hook’s lawsuit, her actions addressing what she called the school’s hostile work environment eventually led to her demotion and reassignment by June 2020. The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.
Adult education is folded into the district’s K-12 program but has its own budget and union. The adult education program is diverse, boasting courses for people to earn a GED, start a career in health care and learn computer skills. The program also offers fee-based classes such as Zumba and American Sign Language.
“These classes bring the community together and give families a chance to get ahead,” Ryan explained, adding that many of the 600 to 800 students in the ESL program are low-income and from immigrant families in Richmond, Pinole and San Pablo. “If adult education wasn’t here, they would have no chance to get access to education.”WCCUSD recognized the adult education teacher’s union in 2017 but has been bargaining the first union contract for a pool of around 80 teachers ever since. Pursley said the relationship has grown tense after negotiations slowed to a near halt in 2022 when the district started challenging issues that were previously agreed to, including who the union is allowed to represent. She wonders if their demands led to her unsuccessful ouster.
“It seems like we’re sort of going backwards,” she said, explaining how the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint after ESL classes were rescheduled without substantive input from the teachers. “Bargaining is about give and take, and they were just not willing to make any changes at all.”
That’s one of the reasons Pursley says the erroneous termination notices are more worrisome than a clerical error; if the union isn’t able to openly advocate for stable, robust adult education classes and equitable treatment of its teachers, she’s worried the program will suffer — jeopardizing the success of students and the entire West Contra Costa community.
“We serve people who may feel a little bit at sea because they don’t know the language,” Pursley said. “From my experience as a teacher, this really builds and strengthens the whole community. It would be very sad if it went away.”