Gompers’ New Union Is Moving Forward, But Tensions Remain - Voice of San Diego

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Gompers’ New Union Is Moving Forward, But Tensions Remain

There’s no contract yet between the southeastern San Diego charter school and the newly formed union. But union leaders say they are aiming for one that would protect some of the flexibility the school has to hire and fire teachers and to standardize pay, eliminating merit pay they say is too subjective – while increasing all the educators’ compensation.

Gompers students play with bubbles before class. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Another long-standing San Diego charter school entered the union fold this year, and union leaders aren’t waiting for their first contract to make changes.

The new teachers’ union at Gompers Preparatory Academy in southeastern San Diego has sent two cease-and-desist letters to school administrators since organizing last November. One alleged interference in the union’s creation. The other halted the addition of a sixth period elective course without bargaining.

There’s no contract yet between the school and the union, which is organized with the California Teachers Association and San Diego Education Association. But union leaders say they are aiming for one that would protect some of the flexibility the school has to hire and fire teachers. But they also aim to standardize pay, eliminating merit pay they say is too subjective – while increasing all the educators’ compensation.

In another early move, the union also forced school leaders to ditch their plans for a longer summer school session in favor of their usual 15-day regimen, which teachers are required to teach.

“I think that was a big win for us,” said Azucena Garcia, a union organizer and Gompers math teacher for five years.

Gompers is one of the most often told stories of charter school success. The image of the school is far different than what it was before it broke away from the district nearly 15 years ago. All that change was done while teachers were at-will employees, without the same bargaining rights and job protections typical public school teachers enjoy. But now Gompers is the latest local charter school to watch its teachers reach out to union organizers and plead for collective bargaining.

It’s a new era at Gompers, one that’s left some teachers cheering and others jeering.

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Critics of the new union created a website advising teachers how to opt out of paying union dues.

Though union organizers gathered support from 80 percent of teachers on staff, some prefer charter school life without one.

Jessica Chapman teaches social justice and American history to ninth- and 12th-graders and is entering her seventh year at Gompers. She expressed concern before the union officially formed, and thinks now that it is in place, the campus is worse off.

“I am a history teacher. I understand unions and I am not against unions. If a corporation is mistreating employees, they have every right to unionize and make sure they are treated fairly. … That’s not what was happening here,” she said. She believes the family atmosphere is now diminished. “The campus became very divisive, partly because not only was leadership separated from teachers, but so was all of our staff. Anyone not certificated is not a part of the union,” she said.

“It’s affecting parents and children,” Chapman said. “A lot of people are disheartened by what has happened.”

Gompers parents Victor and Theressah Rodriguez are unhappy with the change, and created shirts telling teachers to not involve students in union politics. Union leaders said they aren’t aware of anyone being disciplined for involving students.

“I think there is a lot of disinformation and a lot of manipulation on the part of the teachers,” Victor Rodriguez said. “They (students) don’t know what’s happening.”

“Teachers are crying to students saying they can’t afford their condo. These are things the kids don’t need to know,” said Theressah Rodriguez. “We are not fighting the union. We just don’t want our children involved.”

“No parent had a clue this was happening,” she said.

But Gompers’ teacher union leaders say the changes they seek will benefit everyone, and bring fairness to the pay system that doesn’t exist now, as well as more job protections that are sorely needed.

In a letter circulated last fall, their stated goals included, “a transparent and equitable compensation scale,” “fair and just compensation” for teachers working summers and study sessions, input on the calendar and student discipline matters, as well as having a third party monitor a system co-created by administrators and teachers to deal with teacher growth and discipline.

“A lot of teachers felt like the climate of our school was changing. We were losing some teachers. It was demoralizing,” Garcia said. “People wanted to bring that up, but because we are at-will, there were concerns about doing that. Unionizing was a way to protect our teachers and start to feel more comfortable speaking up.”

It’s unlikely the future Gompers teacher contract will afford them all the same perks as their traditional public school peers, but drastic changes are anticipated. They may get multiyear contracts, for instance, with more job protections and a more robust pay scale with higher increases for longevity.

Gompers also has a longer school year – something many experts cite as a key to educational performance. Now, teacher negotiators will have a say in their school calendar, perhaps decreasing the 205-day work year that currently includes summer school to one that pays extra for summer school duties to more closely match San Diego Unified’s 184-day work year.

It sounds good but there’s no free lunch.

Chapman believes the pay increase the union seeks for summer school would increase “every teacher’s salary beyond what Gompers would be able to sustain, and it would also jeopardize some of the things that are wonderful about Gompers, like 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.”

Plus, she said, “The starting salary has gone up almost $10,000 since I was hired.”

Right now, there is a standard pay scale for teachers, but merit pay also exists.

“You can imagine if a person maybe falls out of favor with leadership, they may not have access to that merit pay. It’s a subjective system that doesn’t reach everyone equitably,” said Spencer Mills, a Gompers English teacher for two years and member of the union bargaining team. “We proposed something more in line with years of experience in education, like the majority of contracts across the country.”

Garcia said “tenure” isn’t the word she’d use to describe what’s being sought.

The newly unionized teachers want to protect some flexibility not available in traditional public schools, where teachers with more than two years of experience are nearly impossible to fire even if they face very serious, substantiated accusations of misconduct. But a change from Gompers’ prior system, where a teacher could be fired like any at-will employee in California, is desired.

“Even with a contract in place, there will still be a process for evaluation and if a teacher is not meeting expectations, then they should be let go and they shouldn’t be in the classroom,” said Garcia. “So even if they’re there for five, 10, 15 years, you can still be let go for not performing at the quality we deserve.”

“There would be more protections. We wouldn’t be at-will and couldn’t just be fired for the color of our shoelaces,” Mills added. “It’s more about having a clear and transparent process for how employee discipline is handled. It’s good for everyone. Everyone will know how to do their job in a better way.”

It’s not all about pay, said Garcia and Mills, but better compensation will help the school attract and retain senior teachers, which in turn benefits students and the campus as a whole, they argue. They want to compete for the best teachers in town, and if their neighbors are making substantially more after just a few years, like those in traditional San Diego Unified schools or other charter schools, they’ll be more inclined to jump ship.

San Diego Unified, for instance, has given across-the-board teacher raises even during years of multimillion-dollar shortages and widespread layoff notices. They’ll receive another 3.7 percent under the latest deal, the Union-Tribune reported in June.

San Diego Unified teacher pay averages about $80,800, while Gompers teacher pay hovers around $56,400 on average, according to the school’s accountability report.

“There are teachers who want to stay, but they say, ‘I just can’t afford it anymore.’ They have a family now,” Garcia said. “We don’t want mass teachers leaving because they love our students. They understand our community and they care.”

State data shows a Gompers teacher has an average of five years’ experience in the district, while the average San Diego Unified teacher has 13.

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A struggling Gompers broke away from school district leadership to become an independent charter in 2005 with a new focus on college readiness and achievement. The school was beset by safety concerns, student suspensions and other problems.

The campus now has 80 teachers and roughly 1,320 students in grades six through 12, who often find themselves on scholarships attending UC San Diego if they graduate with good grades in the so-called A-G college preparation courses.

Gompers has weathered criticism in recent years, though. Using test scores and interviews with former students and former staff, a series of inewsource reports in 2017 called into question the school’s reputation for college preparation and invited a grade inflation investigation from accreditors.

“There continues to be misconceptions that we (the union) want to get rid of uniforms, that we want to get rid of (Director Vincent) Riveroll. That we want to go back to the district and that’s part of why we want this contract,” said Garcia.

Instead, she said, the union wants to help the campus “become an even stronger school.”

Riveroll, Gomper’s director, did not respond to interview requests and Jenny Parsons, Gompers’ chief business officer, declined to comment.

The union and school’s bargaining team have met maybe four or five times, said Mills, who hopes they have a contract “maybe come January.”

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Gompers’ union is affiliated with the California Teachers Association, as well as the union that represents teachers at traditional San Diego Unified district schools, the San Diego Education Association.

At first glance, they are strange bedfellows.

CTA lobbies heavily in Sacramento to curtail charter school growth. Charter school teachers typically believe in the charter school ethos they are better off free from the constraints of traditional public schools and are a valuable part of the public school ecosystem.

A spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, Brittany Chord Parmley, said in a statement, “We respect the right to unionize locally, but it is perplexing that while the union is trying to persuade charter school teachers to join their fight, the California Teachers Association has spent over $3 million in three months to destroy the charter school movement through the legislative process in Sacramento.”

But for Gompers teachers who wanted more say over their working conditions, CTA’s work wasn’t a concern.

“I think the misconception is unions block innovation. That it blocks decision-making that can meet the needs of a community,” said Mills. But, “the union is comprised solely of the teachers at that school. … We can customize and tailor our contract to meet the needs of our teachers and our students.”

Mills and Garcia aren’t alone.

Gompers is the ninth independent charter school in San Diego County to unionize and the third to join the San Diego Educators Association, said Kisha Borden, the group’s president.

Harriet Tubman Charter School and Iftin Charter School previously joined SDEA, while Helix Charter High School, Steele Canyon High School, Darnall Charter School, MAAC Community Charter School and Discovery Charter Elementary are affiliated directly with the California Teachers Association. The Preuss School joined a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. That union sent a letter of support to Gompers’ union organizers.

“An increasing number of charter school educators have been unionizing. There are over three hundred unionized charter schools in California,” including 16 in the last year alone, Borden wrote in an email. “By organizing, educators can bargain as equals with management and have a real voice at work. Organizing is also a means of addressing the systemic lack of accountability and regulation within the charter industry.”

Borden said when charter schools unionize, “their contract addresses important issues unique to their school.”

As for Gompers, Borden wrote, “The campus has been divided and that is why teachers have felt the need to create a union.”

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