Thursday, March 10, 2005 | On Feb. 8, in closed session, trustees for the San Diego Unified School District did the unthinkable – in a 4-to-1 vote, they removed charismatic leader and charter-movement champion Vince Riveroll from his post as principal of Gompers Middle School in Chollas View.

Although the effect was devastating to school morale, Gompers supporters persevered. On March 1, they spoke before the school board and asked permission to go charter without Riveroll by their side.

These parents, teachers and community members came together to form a powerful, compelling grassroots movement that simply would not be denied. They stumbled after Riveroll was removed, but they regained their footing and came roaring back with a renewed energy and an unstoppable determination that was breathtaking to behold.

There was desperation there as well – you could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. The pleading, cajoling, bargaining, indignation. Give our children a way out of the trap of poverty, crime and despair, the parents beseeched. Give them a chance for a decent education, a chance at a bright future filled with hope and promise.

A Long Road

Crestfallen, proponents steeled themselves and, against all odds, returned several weeks later with 58 percent of teacher signatures.

But the school board wasn’t done setting up roadblocks. Next, Riveroll got the ax.

The reason for the decision remains a mystery, as personnel matters are not discussed in open session. But it is widely regarded by many education leaders as a naked power play – an outrageous move whose only purpose appeared to be to kill the Gompers charter movement and retain district control of the school.

There was no logical explanation for Riveroll’s dismissal – he did no wrong, there was no obvious lapse in judgment or behavior, he made changes at the school that were widely applauded, and he was highly respected and well-liked by students, staff and parents.

Some have said he was inexperienced, yet since 2000 Riveroll had served as principal in other schools. And, considering that the school has been failing for years under other “more experienced” principals, perhaps less experience was just what this school needed – if that means operating in unconventional ways, offering fresh vision, finding new direction and inspiration, and not settling for mediocrity.

Move Backfires

But the board did not anticipate the ferocity of public reaction. Riveroll’s removal and the saga of Gompers captured the imagination of the entire San Diego community. Thousands of people followed the story and were inspired by the struggle of these parents and teachers to overcome all obstacles thrown in their path.

The night of the vote, it was clear that this board, so quick to undermine Gompers’ efforts behind closed doors, could not do so in public. Whether motivated by shame, legal threats or last-minute sensibility, reluctant trustees voted unanimously to support the charter application.

It’s Not Over Yet

Many at Gompers want Riveroll back as their principal. A champion in the move for charter status, many believe Riveroll is key to the school’s success.

Under charter rules, the new school’s governing board will have the power to hire him. But he would have to quit his current job with the school district, losing all benefits and seniority, to become Gompers’ principal. It could be done, but it’s a high price to ask anyone to pay.

There is another way. Gompers parents and staff, in another show of force, can demand to be heard once again. Let them speak from their hearts and ask the school board, as a gift to the community, to reassign Riveroll to Gompers.

Board members should remember Maryam Soodati, a Gompers student who spoke to them on March 1 about her reaction after Riveroll was removed. Although respectful, shy, diminutive and soft-spoken, her simple words were more forceful and persuasive than the most eloquent and passionate of orators.

As Maryam spoke, you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium, which was filled with over 250 people, many of whom had tears in their eyes.

I thought that the school board of education wanted good things for us, but it seems not. They want to take good things away from us.

Send them more than your blessings, trustees. Finish the job and give the school and its students what they want and deserve. Give Vince Riveroll back to Gompers.

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