Old-School Law Making

On March 19, 2024, CAPSO’s leaders assembled in Sacramento for the spring meeting of the Association’s board of directors. As has become a matter of longstanding practice, regular business was conducted during the morning portion of the meeting and, following lunch, board members organized themselves into three teams and made pre-arranged visits to the offices of key members of the California legislature. The purpose of the visits was to tell the CAPSO story, let our law makers know that the state’s private school community is paying attention, discuss pending legislation, and build positive relationships.

CAPSO directors were furnished with briefing materials for each afternoon encounter and spent a working lunch preparing in their respective teams. Surreptitiously watching each group poring over the material, strategizing, and creating a division of labor, I was struck by the engagement, earnestness, and esprit de corps of our leaders, all of whom are organizational executives with very full plates. I was proud of the manner in which individuals with such deeply held and highly diverse philosophical, religious and political views were able to immediately get down to business in pursuit of the realization of goals that served a common interest. This, I thought, is what CAPSO is all about! California’s K-12 private schools are very well served by this remarkable group of men and women!

After sitting in on one of the team meetings, I paid a personal visit to an old friend, knowing that this would likely be my final opportunity to greet him in my capacity as CAPSO executive director. I first met Willie Armstrong in 2006, when he was a young legislative aide to former Assemblymember Gene Mullin, and I was a wet behind the ears advocate for private school interests. In the years since, Willie has earned a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Sacramento State University, where he conducted original research on personal study characteristics among various groups of learners. After taking a five-year leave of absence from Sacramento, during which time he served as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State, Willie returned to our State Capitol where, in 2019, he became Chief of Staff for Assemblymember Chris Holden. Willie is, without doubt, one of our State Legislature’s most accomplished and highly respected Chiefs.

Back to 2006. (I’ve written about the following events before, but the story is worth retelling.) CAPSO had been concerned for some time over the question of whether, and under what circumstances private school teachers could be treated as exempt employees. At the time, California law was essentially silent on the issue. In practice, most private school administrators treated their teachers as exempt employees (as opposed to salaried employees subject to specified meal and rest breaks and overtime pay), but could point to no specific provisions in the California Labor Code permitting them to do so. (State law regards all public school teachers as exempt employees, and federal law regards both public and private school teachers as exempt.) When a suit alleging a private school’s failure to pay overtime and provide required rest breaks was brought by an aggrieved teacher (and subsequently certified for class action), CAPSO could wait no longer. A clear and durable legislative resolution of the existing legal vacuum had become necessary.

We were beyond delighted when then-Assemblymember Mullin agreed to author the legislation we had in mind. The late law maker, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 83, was a Democrat representing a predominantly blue-collar district encompassing South San Francisco. A former public high school teacher with more than 30 years of classroom experience, Gene Mullen was also the current chair of the Assembly Education Committee. He understood the difficulty created by the gap in existing law, and believed all teachers deserved to be treated as professionals.

The original version of our bill, AB 2613, proposed what we believed to offer the best possible remedy: California law should treat private school teachers in exactly the same way as federal law. And federal regulations treat public and private school teachers alike as exempt employees. Convinced that we had a clear, clean bill in hand, AB 2613 was quietly introduced on February 24, 2006, a Friday.

Early the following Monday morning I received a telephone call from the staff member Assemblymember Mullin had assigned to the bill. In a soft, almost apologetic voice, Willie Armstrong said: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your bill is D.O.A.” Caught completely off guard, I heard the remainder of his communication in a daze. After hanging up, all I could remember was that some guy representing organized labor had told Willie that AB 2613 “would move over my dead body.”

Once I regained my composure I immediately phoned Ned Dolejsi, then the Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference. A top-notch lobbyist, Ned was also a CAPSO board member who was instrumental in persuading Gene Mullin to carry our bill. “Did you find out why they don’t like the bill?” Ned asked. I hadn’t. I was too green and too shaken to have asked such an obvious question. I told Ned I would do my best to find out.

After taking several deep breaths I called Gene Mullin’s office and got Willie on the line. I learned that the labor representative was a fellow named Barry Broad, and that no particular reason for labor’s outright rejection of our bill had been given. I asked whether Willie would do us the favor of asking Mr. Broad to disclose the basis of his client’s opposition…an entreaty to which Willie agreed. I would soon learn that Willie requested what would prove to be a fateful face-to-face meeting with Barry Broad, one that took place in the office Barry maintained at California Federation of Labor headquarters, a couple of short blocks from the Capitol.

I should say at this point that Barry Broad was a respected, accomplished, and passionate attorney and advocate for organized labor interests. A straight shooter who rarely minced words, he could be blunt and colorful. Apparently, in explaining the nature of labor’s opposition to AB 2613 to Willie, he was heavy on the colorful. Which bothered Willie, who is both a person of faith and a gentleman. Following his return to the Capitol, Willie shared both the form and substance of Mr. Broad’s remarks, neither of which pleased his boss.

Gene Mullin was old school to the core. He wanted people such as Willie on his staff because he was a gentleman who believed there was a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and that upholding the dignity of elected office required adherence to established standards of procedure and norms of conduct. Upon hearing Willie’s report, he immediately picked up the phone, called Barry Broad and summoned him to his office, where he essentially told the attorney that he was to take a meeting with the sponsors of AB 2613 and would negotiate in good faith in the presence of both Willie and Ben Ebbink, the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee staff member (himself an attorney) assigned to the bill.

The meeting took place in the California Federation of Labor’s conference room a couple of weeks later. Ned Dolejsi and I sat on one side of the table. Barry Broad and his partner, Shane Gusman, sat across from us, and Willie Armstrong and Ben Ebbink looked on. No pleasantries were exchanged. To call the atmosphere tense would have been an understatement.

We politely asked for an exposition of what their clients found objectionable, and they politely responded. As they saw it, our bill provided no guarantee against private schools hiring individuals with no more than an elementary school education from becoming exempt employee teachers, nor did it prohibit the payment of ‘slave wages’. While such struck us as overblown, we now had something to discuss. And we proceeded to “make sausage.” Our negotiation was notated by Ben Ebbink, who drew up corresponding amendments to AB 2613 following the meeting. These were independently reviewed by each side and, following several minor edits, an agreed-to revision of the bill was in-hand.

On April 20, 2006 AB 2613 was heard before the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, where it was passed by a vote of 8-0. On May 4 the measure was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. From there it proceeded to the Assembly floor where it was placed on the consent calendar, subsequently winning approval by a 76-0 vote. The bill sailed through the Senate in a similar manner, with nary an opposing vote. On August 28, with members of CAPSO’s board of directors, Assemblymember Mullin and Willie Armstrong looking on, AB 2613 was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Postscript: In 2016, a CAPSO delegation that included then-CAPSO President Kevin Baxter, Ned Dolejsi, then-California Catholic Conference Director of Education Ray Burnell and myself met once again with Barry Broad to discuss needed updates to the law created by AB 2613. Barry was hospitable, affable and engaging, though he didn’t give an inch. Eventually, we were able to find common ground following constructive discussions with the California Federation of Teachers. The upshot of it all is California Labor Code Section 515.8.

And that’s how laws are (sometimes) made!

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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