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Teachers may vote on whether to oust controversial union at Gompers charter school

The creation of a teachers union a year ago at the long-hailed Gompers Preparatory Academy charter school has divided the school community. Now some teachers are petitioning to get rid of the union.

If California’s Public Employment Relations Board permits, teachers at the southeast San Diego school will hold an election on whether to remove the union from the school.

Teachers at the school first formed a union last year, supporters said, to address problems such as frequent teacher turnover, low pay, a long work year and other challenges. They formed the union with involvement from the San Diego Unified teachers union and the California Teachers Association.

Teachers and parents who oppose the union say they don’t like the way the union was organized. Some also argue that teachers should accept that a longer work year is part of the job at this high-need school, where 88 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

People on both sides of the conflict accuse the other of creating hostilities.

The union and school management have not yet agreed on a contract.

In December, union leaders filed an unfair practice charge with the state, alleging that school leaders have bargained in bad faith by delaying the union’s requests for information, failing to meet with the union for a reasonable number of hours each month and retaliating against an employee who spoke in favor of the union.

Based on those allegations, the union is asking the state for more time, which would delay efforts to hold a removal election.

It’s up to the state employee relations board to decide if the school committed violations that would make an election unfair, said Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association, the teachers union for San Diego Unified that helped form the Gompers union.

“This charge needs to be heard — and the violations remedied — to ensure that the forces trying to undermine employees’ rights do not succeed and that any election is free of unlawful interference,” Borden said in a statement.

Gompers denies the union’s allegations and looks forward to responding to the unfair practice charge, said Gompers Executive Director Vincent Riveroll in an email. He declined further comment because of ongoing union negotiations.

Gompers’ chemistry teacher Kristie Chiscano organized the petition to remove the union from the school.

Her petition needs signatures from at least 30 percent of educators at the school to be validated by the state employee relations board. Chiscano got legal help for her petition from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union group that announced the submission of Chiscano’s petition earlier this month.

Chiscano could not be reached for comment.

The National Right to Work Foundation accused the union of “sowing division” at Gompers by making disparaging comments to school leaders and trying to prevent the California NAACP from giving an award to Riveroll, accusations that union officials deny.

It’s unclear whether more Gompers teachers support the union than oppose it.

The union says it formed last year with more than 70 percent of the school’s educators in support, but several educators have since left the school and the union doesn’t have an exact count of current supporters.

The National Right to Work Foundation stated Chiscano and other teachers believe the union lacks majority support, but it did not say how many teachers have signed Chiscano’s petition.

“Rather than face a secret-ballot vote of the rank-and-file educators they claim to represent, SDEA union bosses are attempting to resort to legal trickery to trap teachers in a union they oppose by blocking their right to hold a decertification election,” said foundation President Mark Mix in a press release.

From neighborhood school to charter school

Gompers was once a San Diego Unified district school that suffered from gang violence and high teacher turnover.

Fifteen years ago, it was converted to a charter school. Many supporters say that contributed to a turnaround that saved the school.

The school has a partnership with UC San Diego, which has provided professional development and scholarships to students. Last year the school had test scores that were below state averages, though its graduation rate hit 97 percent.

Some parents believe Gompers used to be a close-knit community, but the union conflict has made it a sometimes tense campus, where some people think they are treated differently based on whether or not they support the union.

“It all changed once the union started,” said Theressah Rodriguez, a Gompers parent who opposes the union. “Now, whenever you come in, you feel the hostility. There’s kind of not the same feeling.”

Rodriguez believes the union has not been transparent enough with parents. She said she also is unhappy that a teacher recently stopped tutoring her son after school to avoid working too many hours.

She said she fears the union may threaten the school’s progress.

“We do not want a union to take Gompers back to what it was before it was a charter,” Rodriguez said.

But some teachers say they need a union —because the school already has been suffering.

Vallery Campos, a seventh-grade teacher who is on the union organizing team, said many teachers have been leaving the school due to burnout and are going to teaching jobs elsewhere with better pay and hours.

Their departures have left the school with several vacancies that are sometimes filled by unqualified substitutes, Campos said.

Gompers’ current starting teacher salary is $50,000 for a 205-day work year. Beginning teachers at a San Diego Unified school get paid about $52,000 for a 184-day work year.

Since Gompers’ union formed a year ago, its unit size has shrunk from 96 educators to 77, according to the union. The school’s teacher retention rate was 73 percent at the beginning of this school year, down from 86 percent the year before, according to the school.

Campos said her seventh-grade team has been missing a math teacher for two years.

The seventh grade has churned through three different English teachers recently, Campos said, the last of which was a sub without a teaching credential. The school’s seventh-grade English state test scores fell last school year.

“Parents put their trust in us that their kids are coming and getting the best education possible; I wasn’t seeing that happen,” Campos said.

“What I was seeing was a revolving door of teachers coming in and leaving once they got some experience. What I was seeing was substitutes in the classroom for prolonged periods because we couldn’t attract teachers.”

Charter schools are public schools run independently of school districts. Many charter schools have historically been at odds with teachers unions, which are pervasive throughout school districts.

Some charter schools are unionized under the teachers union of the school district that authorizes the schools.

Gompers is not; it is one of 10 charter schools in San Diego County that are independently unionized, according to the California Teachers Association.

The other San Diego-area charter schools that are independently unionized are Arroyo Vista, Helix, Steele Canyon, Iftin, Harriet Tubman, Discovery, Preuss, Darnall and MAAC Community schools.

In total, more than 300 of the roughly 1,300 charter schools in California are unionized, according to the California Teachers Association.

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