History of the Merit System
The year was 1933: an election year for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Four candidates, who were known during and after their campaign as the “Four Horsemen”, were running for seats on the Board of Education. Rumor had it that these four candidates had promised jobs to many people in exchange for their political support. In an open letter to employees of the District, these candidates made the following promise:
“We wish to assure you that if we are elected to membership on the Board of Education, we intend to give you fair and just treatment. We expect to make only such changes as we find necessary in order to secure honest and efficient service. We do not believe in the ‘spoils system’. We are opposed to all forms of political coercion in the schools; we have not promised jobs or promotions to anyone.”
The following are two accounts of events following the election of the Four Horsemen.
“Immediately upon their installation in office, there were wholesale dismissals among non-certificated employees, chiefly among the custodians … Estimates on the number dismissed vary from five hundred to eighteen hundred.”
“When these Board members took office, they began to make good on their campaign promises. We had some 700 people fired out of the Business Division in 1933. The halls were filled and the sidewalks were filled. They had to have traffic policemen to control all the people who were there demanding jobs that had been promised to them. For days, strangers wandered through the offices … I came a year after that and the employees by that time had decided that they needed and would work toward obtaining a merit system.”
On September 15, 1935, Assembly Bill 999 became effective. This bill was the enabling legislation for the establishment of the “civil service commission”.
Today, the authority of the Personnel Commission emanates from Article 4, Chapter 4, Sections 88060 through 88139 inclusive of the California State Education Code. The Personnel Commission is charged with developing and maintaining a Merit System for classified employees of the District and fostering the advancement of a career service for these employees. The Merit System is a personnel system that provides for the selection, retention, and promotion of classified employees on the basis of individual merit and fitness demonstrated by competitive examinations and performance.
The Personnel Commission is composed of three commissioners. Their term of office is three years with one seat being appointed each year. Members of the Personnel Commission are appointed by the State Chancellor based on the recommendation of the Board of Trustees.
Prior to making its recommendation, the Board is required to seek the advice and counsel of all constituencies within the District.
About this time, you may be thinking, “Nice story but that was 70 years ago. It couldn’t happen today.” There are also those who will argue that the merit system concept is “old fashion” in light of public sector labor unions. However, with the advent of collective bargaining in public education, the functions performed by Personnel Commissions take on added significance. The necessity for objective information and decisions related to job classification and salary remain unaltered. The advocacy and protection of rights for non-represented employees remains a necessity. An independent body which can hear employee disciplinary appeals and conduct investigations in an impartial manner is vital. Employees and the public alike deserve to know that public employment is being managed efficiently and economically and in accordance with generally accepted principles of merit.