In 2004, following decades of poor student performance and gang crime, parents at San Diego’s Gompers Middle School and the school’s principal used a little-known state law to convert their campus into a public charter school.
The new school, called Gompers Preparatory Academy, thrived. Campus safety improved, test scores rose, and students and teachers lined up for rare openings in a school that was a model of reform – and to work for Vincent Riveroll, the principal, now called director, who helped make it happen. Today, the school boasts a graduation rate of over 90 percent and a partnership with University of California–San Diego.
But in late 2018, the wheels came off. That’s when parents attending a student award ceremony first learned that a few Gompers teachers had successfully lobbied the district to declare the school’s faculty members of the San Diego Educators Association.
A group of teachers, coordinating with the county teachers union, the San Diego Educators Association (SDEA), began circulating a petition to form a union at Gompers in 2018. According to teachers who spoke with California Policy Center, these teachers approached their colleagues at odd times to sign a document and provided misleading statements about the nature of it. According to a school nurse, “I was ultimately rushed to sign the paper and was not given time to read it.” While some teachers complained about this process to the director, nothing was done because state law prohibits school officials from intervening in a labor organizing effort.
Union organizers claimed that Gompers teachers had been denied a “transparent and equitable compensation scale,” “fair and just compensation,” and influence over the school calendar. To fix this, union leaders have vowed to abolish the tools that propelled Gompers’ success: merit pay and the director’s authority to hire and fire teachers based on performance.
All of that first became apparent in that late 2018 student award meeting. “I could not believe that this was kept from us,” said parent Theresah Rodriguez.
Parent Elva Beltran expressed concerns that the school was reverting to its pre-charter days. “When I was a student at Gompers in the late 1990s, it was not a safe environment. Teachers didn’t care if we failed, there were drugs and gangs on campus, and parents were kept in the dark,” she said. “I have two of my children enrolled at GPA and I am afraid the union is starting to return our school to what it was before Director Riveroll changed it.”
During Elva’s time at the school, SDEA controlled the school, basing teacher pay on time teachers spent in the union. Any time the power of the teachers union was challenged, union leaders deployed messaging that cast the school district as greedy and tyrannical. Utilizing an us vs. them strategy, the teacher’s union played the victim to maintain its grip on Gompers and to push back against any reform that threatened them.
Seeing that, Theresah Rodriguez and her husband joined with other concerned parents and teachers to create a website to raise awareness about the crisis at Gompers. They even made t-shirts that say, “I love Gompers. Please, respect our students, culture, and legacy during your negotiations United Teachers and Gompers.” Concerned parents wear these to campus to remind teachers not to drag children into the union’s politics. “I heard from my child that some teachers are spending whole classes talking about the union and the importance of it,” said Rodriguez. “We don’t want our kids dragged in this. We want them focused on their schoolwork so that they can get into a good college.”
But union propaganda doesn’t end with the classroom. Some parents say they feel intimidated by the teachers union and some pointed to the SDEA’s member publication. The January 2019 issue included an article about the newly unionized Gompers teachers – and a photo in which one of the teachers was flipping off the camera. Parents asserted that the photo was meant to attack those who had opposed the union, but the union denied the allegation. The photo was later replaced in the online edition.
According to Rodriguez, several children have asked their parents to stop wearing the yellow scarves indicating their support for the school they had come to love; teachers are telling students those parents are crazy. But at the same time, the union has asked teachers to wear union stickers throughout the school day in order to show students which teachers are union loyalists. While some parents have spoken against this action, Rodriguez says, others have chosen to remain silent out of fear that the union teachers will retaliate against their children.
Even Director Riveroll, the man who engineered the miracle at Gompers, has been attacked by the Gompers teachers union. When the NAACP announced in September that it would honor Riveroll for his “longstanding and dedicated efforts toward the advancement of students of color,” union leaders urged staff to ask the civil rights organization to rescind its award.
Many Gompers teachers are fighting back. Jessica Chapman, a social justice and American history teacher at the school, has publicly expressed concerns that the new union is bargaining for an unsustainable salary at the school. “It would jeopardize some of the things that are wonderful about Gompers,” robbing the budget for such staff as “a full-time nurse, a speech pathologist every day, counselors for every grade level, a counselor whose job is to help them get into college.”
Now facing the prospect of a return to the bad old days, the Gompers community faces a choice that only its parents and teachers can determine. If Gompers is to maintain its culture of excellence, then it must continue to do what it has done before – put students first.
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Koppany B. Jordan is the Director of Operations at California Policy Center.