Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Gompers has always done the “heart work” for the kids in addition to the regular hard work of education, says Dolores Garcia, “and the union does not want to do that.”
Only 16 years ago, gang fights were constant at Gompers Secondary and Middle Schools in Chollas View. That changed when teachers, parents, and a new administration banded together to turn them into charter schools. Part of the decision involved removing the teachers union that had long been in place and going non-union. In 2012, a high school, Gompers Preparatory Academy was added on the grounds. If success can be measured in a 100 percent graduation rate and college acceptance numbers, Gompers Prep as a charter has been a success. All seniors in the 2020 graduating class were accepted into college, including 75 out of 133 into four-year colleges, while the remaining 58 were accepted into two-year colleges.
Azucena Garcia: “I was always aware that Chollas View is an underserved community and came to believe in educational equity. I still live in the community and walk to work.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
But another kind of fighting returned to Gompers when the union arrived back on campus.
This summer, after a contentious year-and-a-half aftermath to the teachers union taking hold at Gompers, the school’s leadership team laid off 29 out of 67 teachers, or close to 40 percent. They cited greater costs, including low enrollment, for the fall semester as the reason for the June 1, 2020 move. A little over three weeks later, the affected teachers were ordered to remove all their belongings from the classrooms. Then, on July 6, the school rescinded the layoffs.
The confusion exacerbated the divisiveness on campus over the presence of the union, says math teacher Azucena Garcia, who notes that a few of her colleagues left as a result. She grew up in the Chollas View neighborhood and attended Gompers Prep, which lies immediately south of State Route 94 on 47th Street. After graduating from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, she joined Teachers for America, an organization which helps inexperienced young people land their first jobs. Garcia is now 32. In 2013, she became a math tutor at Gompers Prep, and two years after that, a full-time teacher there.
“I was always aware that Chollas View is an underserved community and came to believe in educational equity. I still live in the community and walk to work,” Garcia said.
Gompers Prep as a charter has been a success. All seniors in the 2020 graduating class were accepted into college, including 75 out of 133 into four-year colleges, while the remaining 58 were accepted into two-year colleges.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
When you ask teachers at Gompers when the union activity started, they tend to say November 2018. That’s when actual recruiting began. It was then that the union was first “recognized.” But Garcia remembers agitation having started in the spring of that year. “It happened largely as a result of a series of negative articles in inewsource in 2017 that reported on former Gompers students and teachers complaining that poor training had caused a lack of preparation for the students’ classwork at UCSD. There were charges of low scoring on standardized tests and grade inflation to make sure students graduated, even though they weren’t ready for college.”
The Gompers leadership seemed embarrassed by it, according to Garcia, and, to compensate, worked the staff extra hard in preparing their classes during the spring and summer of 2018. “Gompers teachers already work 205 days a year compared to 185 in San Diego Unified District schools. So that’s when a lot of complaining began,” she said. “And we wanted to have a greater voice at the school. There’s too much top-down decision making now.”
Why mess with success?
Kristie Chiscano believes that having an active union would jeopardize the success Gompers has enjoyed since becoming a charter school in 2005.
Those who had fought the union’s coming to Gompers, spearheaded largely by chemistry teacher Kristie Chiscano, produced a 197-page document petitioning the California Public Employee Relations Board to de-certify the union. But it took them all of 2019 to produce and, at the last moment, their attorney forgot to file it by deadline. The board refused to act on the petition, which eventually did arrive in early January 2020. Given the circumstance of “omission,” as opposed to simple failure to submit, the organization promised to get around to considering the petition later.
In the meantime, union members filed their own objections, namely, three charges of “unfair labor practices,” against the union opponents and the Gompers administration. The Public Employee Relations Board then announced that the de-certification petition would have to wait for a hearing until the unfair labor practice complaints were adjudicated.
Now everybody waits for the results. And waits. And waits.
Chiscano argues that unions undermine charter schools. In the bad old days, before Gompers went charter, the school had difficulty hiring teachers who wanted to stay. The school district would make the choices, usually rookies who would use the Gompers assignment as a jumping off point for moving to a more preferable (and safer) assignment.
Chiscano is one of the veteran teachers at Gompers. She is a former surgeon who wanted to make an educational difference in a low-socioeconomic-status community. She became credentialed in biology and advanced placement chemistry. At Gompers, she has started a robotics program as well.
“The de-certification petition, if successful, would allow us the opportunity for a secret ballot overseen by a third party,” said Chiscano. “All along we have wanted every teacher to vote on whether to have a union. But the San Diego Education Association, or SDEA, [the organization that represents teachers throughout the school district] has blocked any chance of voting by means of the unfair labor practice complaints.”
The problem, said Chiscano, was that some teachers were never made aware that a union was in the works. One such is computer technology instructor Sean Bentz, who told me, “I am the most veteran teacher at Gompers, and get extra pay for doing extra work. It’s like a merit system. So the organizers must have known I would not have been a good person to approach.”
Chiscano continued: “Some people say they were told by union organizers that the new organization was going to be an ‘association’ only, not a union. Others said they were rushed or pushed to sign,” she says. “In fact, we have never seen what those who signed actually agreed to. The tactics of the organizers were never fully transparent.”
Having an active union at Gompers Prep promises not only to raise pay for teachers but it’s likely to lower their working hours as well, thus eliminating certain extra preparation activities and before-and-after school efforts that many new teachers don’t like. Chiscano believes that would jeopardize the success Gompers has enjoyed since becoming a charter school in 2005. In addition to graduation and college acceptance rates, she cites another impressive statistic: since 2013, Gompers students have been given 200 scholarships to attend UCSD through a program the school’s director, Vincent Riveroll, worked out with the university.
No success of similar scale ever occurred at Gompers before 2005. “And these days, they show that Gompers has been two to three times more successful than similar schools nearby,” said Chiscano.
Especially at the time Gompers was getting off the ground as a charter, the before-and-after school time the faculty put in paid huge dividends. In a 2009 article titled “Gompers Takes a Bow,” Reader writer Ernie Grimm showed how deploying teachers at the entrances to the campus helped prevent the many gangs in the area from distracting and harassing students as they arrived in the morning and left in the afternoon.
That strategy has been successful ever since, even as the local gangs (52 of them, some say) have never left the area. But some newer teachers don’t see that as a part of their job as faculty members.
Gangs ran Gompers
Dolores Garcia, the administrative assistant for student affairs at Gompers, started her career there in 1997. She has vivid recollections of the before-and-after situations of becoming a charter school. At the time of the changeover, there was only a middle school.
Garcia grew up in Chollas View and had once belonged to one of the many gangs that dominated the area. The gangs “were in and out of classrooms,” said Garcia, and the student dropout rate was high. Gangs ran Gompers until, in 2004, the school district sent a young Vincent Riveroll in to fix it. “Put the students first” was the motto he immediately instilled. He initiated strong discipline, including mandatory uniforms and, as a master teacher, did not hesitate to go into classrooms to help struggling classes. “The SDEA hated that and managed to convince the district to remove him,” said Garcia.
“That’s when parents and community members came together and fought for Riveroll to come back. Together they decided the only way to turn Gompers around was to establish it as an independent charter school. By doing that, they were also able to eliminate SDEA.”
Early this year, Garcia started serving the bargaining committee from the leadership perspective, trying to hammer out a teachers’ contract with union representatives. The San Diego Education Association’s Anthony Saavedra has been chairing the meetings. After the Covid-19 shutdowns started everyone working from home, some union participants began getting increasingly “disrespectful,” she claimed. “They were also sounding off on social media, misrepresenting our beliefs. We’ve had a huge involvement in the school by our students’ parents. But suddenly they too were being insulted as not smart enough,” said Garcia.
Gompers has always done the “heart work” for the kids, in addition to the regular hard work of education, she says, “and the union does not want to do that.”
Garcia stepped down from the bargaining committee in early July. “I do not want a union at Gompers so that we re-live 2004,” she continued, “and now I am free to say that. If I’d said it while still on the committee, they’d have taken it to [employee relations board] as another ‘retaliation’ against the union.”
Garcia believes that eventually parents and local community members may rise up and force the union out. Too many people don’t want it.
Bullying and silencing
Before contract negotiation meetings take place, union representatives meet with the departments of the school to collect the concerns and requests faculty members want them to introduce as the bargaining for the new contract takes place.
In April of this year, Spencer Mills, an English teacher and union member on the bargaining team, met by Zoom with the English department. As the meeting was about to close, Viridiana Word, who was named Teacher of the Year for 2019-2020, pressed Mills to make sure he would take “everyone’s” interests to the negotiations. What followed, according to Word, was an insulting and demeaning tirade against her. In a long letter, Word complained about the way she was treated.
In part, the letter reads as follows: “I asked Mr. Mills if he would please consult the department before he decided things on our behalf, especially as things move forward with bargaining. What resulted was a back-and-forth discussion that ended up in him silencing me by muting my speaker while he continued to berate me.”
In another section of the letter, Word wrote: “I feel this action to be incredibly egregious because, as my bargaining representative, I expect Mr. Mills to really capture what each of the members of the department feels regarding certain topics, rather than him assuming what he thinks we feel, because, as he stated last night, he is ‘a smart guy’ and can gauge where everyone is.”
On April 28, Word sent the letter to the union. “The only response I got was a referral to a union colleague. I wanted someone in charge to discipline Mills for bullying and silencing me, not a colleague.”
The concerns Word wanted Mills to take to bargaining revolved around a flexibility she has enjoyed since coming to teach at Gompers eight years ago. “A union contract cannot capture caring for students,” she says. “It does not allow for flexibility. I want to have the option to call a student at night and not be stuck to 3:30 pm as the official end of the day. If the leadership wants me to tutor, I don’t want to be told ‘No, it’s break time.’”
When I catch up with Mills, he asks if he might email me his response to Word regarding the Zoom incident. The email starts with a history of their relationship. He says that when the bargaining process began, he and Ms. Word communicated regularly, but she was “openly hostile and aggressive.” She even apologized about her attitude at one point, he says. It appeared that she was opposed to negotiating about anything. Eventually she came around and indicated that she was willing to participate in the bargaining process. But when Mills set up the English department meeting, according to the email, she betrayed a sensitive issue they had discussed in private. That made him feel she was trying to embarrass him before the whole group.
“After the situation became agitated between the two of us [during the Zoom meeting] — we were both talking over each other — I put her on mute so that I could finish what I was saying. I understand the symbolic implications of my doing that, [so] I called and apologized to her within ten minutes of the meeting’s ending, and... we had an hour long conversation on the phone that left me with the impression that we made some progress in better understanding each other.... I was happy for resolution to the issue and welcomed a better relationship with Ms. Word moving forward."
Mills was to be disappointed on that front. “Days later, I received a highly inflammatory and disparaging letter from Ms. Word, in which I was accused of being sexist, among many other things. Ms. Word also declined an offer for mediation. She was clearly just looking to be punitive in an effort to discredit me and the advocacy I have been involved with since I started my work on the bargaining team….”
Mills is one of the more strident union activists at the school. He will be going into his fourth year at Gompers Prep this fall. In his first job in education, he worked for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District assisting before- and after-school programs.
I asked Mills why, in order to establish itself at Gompers, the union didn’t stage a secret ballot election for all teachers to see how many favored collective bargaining, then begin promoting its advantages to anyone opposed. (The opposite approach has caused a charge that the effort was clandestine.) Although Mills did not take part in the union’s early recruiting campaign, he told me: “We knew that the school leadership would not like the idea of a union and that there would be criers and screamers. Also, there was the likelihood that veteran teachers would have too much negative influence on how younger teachers should vote. So it was decided that first contacting a small group was needed to get started. Eventually, we reached 75 percent of the teachers who said they were interested.”
Ever since, the union has interpreted the 75 percent to be the vote.
Mills agreed that being “deployed” at crucial times around campus does not seem to be work for teachers. But there are a number of other important issues, salaries probably being the most compelling. In 2017, Mills’s first year at Gompers, he earned $43,000. “If I had been working in the district,” he said, “I would have made $7000 to $8000 more.
“Then there is favoritism. Certain people have gotten summers off, not because of merit, but simple loyalty.
“And there is a culture of fear at the school due to ‘at will’ employment. People have a lot of anxiety about speaking their mind. They realize that they could be gone at the drop of a hat. The administration does not have to throw its weight around. The intimidation is latent.
“But I will say I have great respect for our director, Dr. Riveroll. He has great qualities I admire. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Although the layoffs were reversed, the rationale for their original adoption was disingenuous, Mills believes. Increased costs for the fall did not acknowledge $2.7 million Gompers received from Paycheck Protection Plan funds, the Cares Act, and other funding. “Teachers were to bear the brunt of the layoffs,” said Mills. “Zero percent of the layoffs aimed at a reduction in leadership. When asked, the administration said they were not considering that.”
Mills has been participating not only in bargaining but on the organizing committee as well. This intense involvement, he thinks, resulted in his being reassigned by the administration from tenth grade, for the start of the 2018 year, to seventh grade for 2019.
“I think of myself as a high school teacher,” he told me. “I understood what was going on. They were trying to provoke me to quit.... Let me mention also that one day while I was in my classroom teaching, my supervisor walked in and wanted to know where my badge was. I had only forgotten to put it on. I emailed the supervisor about the interruption and was told later that that was disrespectful.”
Good attrition rate
Kristie Chiscano takes issue with a number of union complaints. “They get mad at leadership for coming into struggling classes,” she said. “But that can help a class. They say the school’s teacher attrition rate is bad. However, the national average since 2010 has been 50 percent in high-poverty regions. As of three years ago, 85 percent of our teachers have been remaining at Gompers. We have a good attrition rate.
“Gompers has an open-door policy in its various campus committees. But union faculty who had concerns that bothered them, they wouldn’t go through the committees. Most union teachers are fairly new.
“All of these issues make me doubt whether a union contract is really needed at Gompers. I think it will be counterproductive.”
Cheryl Coney is a labor organizer at the California Teachers Union. Like Azucena Garcia and Dolores Garcia, Coney grew up in Chollas View. As Azucena began participating in the effort to form the union at Gompers, she reached out to Coney for advice.
Coney was adamant that she only answered Garcia’s questions and did not participate in the campus recruiting efforts or contract negotiations. “All of that is done exclusively by the new union itself,” she said. And she said she can only provide background information, not any kind of personal or official stance toward the union effort.
But she was helpful in clearing up some issues. For instance, I wanted to know what the new union’s name is. “Gompers Preparatory Academy/San Diego Education Association,” she said. [The association is a subsidiary of the California Teachers Union.] “Sometimes the membership at the campus refers to themselves as the Gompers Teachers Association,” indicating that it is a subsidiary of the SDEA. When teachers become members of GTA, they will eventually pay union dues to SDEA. “But while the first contract negotiations are still ongoing, the SDEA is not yet collecting dues,” said Coney.
Coney was helpful, too, in clarifying the unfair labor practice charges against their opponents that the union took to the Public Employee Relations Board. Spencer Mills filed the first one, complaining that the school engaged in “retaliation” against him as a union activist in reassigning him to teach seventh grade. A second one involved Mills as well. It was retaliatory, the charge said, that the school singled him out for not having his badge on when a number of others also were guilty.
The 29 teacher layoffs Gompers announced on June 1 were cited as a third unfair labor practice, although that became moot after the school reversed itself on July 6.
Union members are complaining, too, that their first contract negotiations are going much slower than they should be. “The amount of time it’s taking is mind-boggling,” said Mills. “It’s like a chess game or Game of Thrones.” Coney notes that a Board judge has warned Gompers that it has to bargain in good faith.
From the union opponents’ point of view, the unfair labor practice charges have functioned a little too efficiently to block their petition to de-certify the union. So far, the Public Employee Relations Board has not seen fit to adjudicate them and move on to the de-certification’s demand for a vote by all teachers on whether there should be a union at Gompers in the first place. Some are suggesting that mediation might be considered by both sides. “I believe that the issues and differences we have at Gompers can be worked out over time,” suggested Chollas View’s Azucena Garcia.