Wednesday, December 21, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.

The formerly charter-friendly San Diego Unified School District clearly reversed course in 2005 and turned against the schools of choice, ending years of receptiveness to the innovations charters can offer.

The assault began almost immediately after new trustees Luis Acle, Shelia Jackson and Mitz Lee were elected in November 2004. Charter schools came under instant scrutiny, as the new board members made their skepticism apparent from the start.

Board actions, which ranged from brazen to deceptive, were taken both in public and private to thwart the efforts of existing and hopeful charters, stunning communities and families, and undermining the district’s charter movement.

Charter schools represent a threat by offering competition to traditional schools. Although technically still under the umbrella of the authorizing school district, charter schools operate more independently than regular schools. Free from teacher union restrictions, they have the ability to hire and fire their own employees, deliver instructional programs outside the parameters of labor contracts and elect their own governing boards that usually include parents and teachers.

School districts also regard charter schools warily because charter students take away state money from the district. Even though charter students are still the district’s students, most state funding follows the pupil.

More fundamentally, charters threaten many districts and their unions because their very existence and popularity is a poke in the eye to obsolete educational systems and narrow-minded administrators who refuse to innovate or offer any alternative to existing instructional programs.

The school district’s Gompers fiasco early in 2005 demonstrates how severe the attitude shift became after the new school board took office.

When the Chollas View community rallied to transform their local middle school, Gompers, into a district charter school 12 months ago, the SDUSD board of education turned a deaf ear to their pleas. Roadblocks were erected and rules were changed at the last minute to make the process increasingly difficult, yet the community persevered.

Led by persistent Gompers Principal Vince Riveroll, parents and community members fervently believed in their mission, kept up the pressure, never took their eyes off the goal – and eventually won the day when a reluctant school board voted unanimously before a crowd of hundreds to approve the Gompers charter petition on March 1.

But along the way, in closed session, a scheming school board removed Riveroll as principal of the school, in a 4-1 vote (trustee Katherine Nakamura dissented). Hoping the movement would fizzle out once the charter’s champion was gone, the board majority “promoted” Riveroll, making him a mentor principal at the district office.

But the board underestimated the passion of parents who refused to take no for an answer. And a dedicated, determined Riveroll, who worked on the Gompers charter on his own time even after he was no longer officially in charge of the school, remained popular and inspirational, becoming a pivotal figure in the school’s revolution.

During public comment on March 1 when the school board heard the Gompers charter petition, parents spoke angrily about promises, betrayal and responsibility. Trustee Shelia Jackson, whose sub-district includes the Gompers neighborhood, took the biggest hit. With a cheering audience behind her, community member Gloria Cooper challenged Jackson over her lack of support for the effort, saying, “Ms. Jackson, whose interests do you represent?”

Riveroll has since been reappointed director of the school, which officially became a California charter school on July 1. Although not enough time has passed to evaluate the Gompers program, educators across the county, state and even the nation are hopeful that its transformation will turn the low-performing school, a failure for more than 30 years, into an academic success.

The Gompers uproar caused SDUSD to suffer a serious loss of community support and respect, and the suspicion and resentment survive to this day. Although this very public, often bitter debate is now over, it represents a perfect example of the new school board’s dramatic shift away from charter school backing.

A further indication of SDUSD board members’ lack of enthusiasm for charters is their unwillingness to support their internal Office of School Choice, a lean department run by only two employees who assisted in the creation of charter schools and provided oversight. Both employees quit this year, citing an indifferent board and unresponsive work environment as their primary reasons for leaving.

After decimating the Office of School Choice, the district now faces the public perception that it has little concern for the needs of desperate families seeking free alternatives to stale, woefully inadequate educational programs.

Marsha Sutton writes about education. She can be reached at

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