By Manny Otiko/California Black Media
Dr. Shirley Thornton, a retired educator and colonel in the United States Army Reserves, remembers reaching a “glass ceiling” when she tried to advance to a senior level position at the California Department of Education (CDE).
“The problems I faced were centered around my being in charge and people accepting that,” said Thornton who lives in the Los Angeles area.
She says when the position for Deputy Superintendent, Specialized Programs came open, officials at the CDE told her she would have to apply for it. At the same time, a white colleague, also a woman, was appointed to an equivalent position without going through a formal application process.
Thornton ended up challenging the department. Eventually, the CDE, which oversees public education in the state, appointed her to the position. But she says her problems didn’t stop there.
She remembers her work coming under constant scrutiny by her superiors.
“I had to continually prove I was the right person for the job. Also there were continual audits being done on my areas of responsibility with many charges of improper expenditures of dollars,” she said. “Not one audit ever found I had done anything wrong.”
Thornton is not alone.
Other Black employees at the CDE, which has its headquarters in Sacramento, filed a formal complaint last year against the CDE with the help of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The grievance states that the agency has a systemic history of discriminatory practices concerning hiring and promotions of African Americans.
According to some of the CDE employees who are part of the complaint, the SEIU convened the department’s African-American employees to discuss their over representation among employees recommended for adverse action at the agency. The SEIU also laid out a strategy to help the CDE make improvements.
California Black Media made several requests to discuss more details of the complaint with the SEIU but the union declined to respond.
Bill Ainsworth, communications director for the California Department of Education, however, acknowledged the agency received the complaint.
“Black employees have expressed concerns about lack of promotional and training opportunities and disciplinary actions falling on Blacks disproportionately,” he said.
According to figures provided by the CDE, Black employees make up the third largest ethnic group at the CDE. Of the 1,440 employees at the agency, 106 are Black.
Whites are the largest number at 784, followed by Hispanics at 248. However only three Black employees hold senior-level positions.
The department says it is trying to address its diversity problems.
“We respond to each complaint individually. We cannot discuss individual complaints,” Ainsworth said. “But, for example, someone who believes they did not receive a promotion or training because they are Black can file a grievance with their union or file a formal or informal complaint with the CDE’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which then investigates.”
Ainsworth added that the department remains committed to inclusion.
“The California Department of Education believes strongly in diversity and diligently follows all state and federal laws and regulations intended to make sure hiring, promotion and disciplinary policies are fair and give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed,” he said.