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Teachers beat San Diego union in remarkable rematch

Teachers beat San Diego union in remarkable rematch

Take a break from doom scrolling California stories to celebrate the victory of charter school teachers over the union that came to crush them. 

Teachers at Gompers Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in the Chollas View neighborhood of San Diego, have successfully voted to remove San Diego Education Association (SDEA) union bosses from their school. 

California Policy Center worked with the educators to receive free legal aid from National Right to Work Foundation staff attorneys.

While Gompers teachers have been seeking to exercise their right to free themselves from the SDEA union’s control as early as 2019, the current effort began in March 2023 after a majority of Gompers educators signed a petition asking the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to hold an employee vote on whether to oust the union (known as a “union decertification vote”). 

After collecting ballots from Gompers educators from May 10 to June 6, PERB announced June 7 that a majority of teachers voted to remove the union.

“Gompers teachers endured years of legal roadblocks just to exercise their rights, and that’s to say nothing of the retaliation they faced from union officials and even pressure from union-label policymakers,” said National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix. “No special interest group in California, or in America, should wield this kind of power over teachers and the public education system.”

“We worked on every option for these committed teachers before determining that their only recourse was decertification,” said CPC president Will Swaim. “We knew this was a case for National Right to Work – but asking them to take it on was a big ask. They saw the courage of these teachers, considered the facts, and stayed with them for the two-plus years it took to win.” 

“The parents have started to return, and there are plenty of hugs going around,” said Cynthia Ornelas, a sixth-grade teacher and a leader of the years-long effort at Gompers. “We are mending and reaching out to all our teachers. Teaching is hard work, and when you have goals like we do, with students first, we need everyone on the same team. The joy is back in our classrooms and our arms are wide open.” 

Before Gompers was a top-performing charter school, it was a failing union-run school. In 2004, following decades of poor student performance and gang crime, parents at 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. They were also eager to work for Vincent Riveroll, the principal, now called director, who helped make it happen. The school soon boasted 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 SDEA, the county teachers union.

A group of teachers, coordinating with 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 document’s meaning. 

“I was ultimately rushed to sign the paper and was not given time to read it,” said a school nurse who spoke on condition of anonymity. While some teachers complained about this process to Riveroll, his hands were tied: state law prohibits school officials from intervening in a labor organizing effort.

Union organizers said they were essential to the campus. They 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 in 2020. “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 Gompers, 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-versus-them strategy, the teachers’ 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 with the message, “I love Gompers. Please, respect our students, culture, and legacy during your negotiations, United Teachers.”

“I heard from my child that some teachers are spending whole classes talking about the union and the importance of it,” Rodriguez said at the time. “We didn’t want our kids dragged into this. We wanted them focused on their schoolwork so that they can get into a good college.”

But union activism didn’t end with the classroom. Some parents said they felt intimidated by the teachers union — and a few said their reasons for anxiety were heightened by 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 that claim. The photo was later replaced in the online edition.

According to Rodriguez, several children asked their parents to stop wearing yellow scarves provided by California Policy Center to indicate their support for the school they had come to love; teachers were telling students those parents “are crazy.” 

But at the same time, the union asked teachers to wear union stickers throughout the school day in order to show students which teachers were union loyalists. While some parents spoke against the union, others remained silent, fearing, they said, that union teachers would retaliate against their children.

Even Director Riveroll, the man who engineered the miracle at Gompers, was attacked by the Gompers teachers’ union. When the NAACP announced in September 2019 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 fought back. Jessica Chapman, an American history teacher at the school, 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.”

Facing the prospect of a return to the bad old days, the Gompers community faced 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. Last week’s vote by Gompers teachers to decertify their union means SDEA can no longer stand in the way of one school’s success.


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