Scott Barton is principal of The Preuss School UCSD. / Photo by Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego

Preuss School has long been at the top of the charts in national recognition and performance measures.

But the charter school that serves low-income students who would be the first in their families to go to college is about to finish its first full year with something new: a teachers union.

In August 2017, teachers at the nearly 20-year-old school unionized and negotiated their first contract.

It is a test for one of the most successful charter schools in the country, and it comes amid other change and challenges. A new state law is forcing Preuss to change its student application process. And San Diego Unified School District, after renewing the school’s charter for five more years, is increasingly hostile to new charter schools.

Academics and UC San Diego leaders set up Preuss in 1999 to test education innovations and prepare students for University of California schools. It has a longer school year, on-site medical and mental health professionals and an advisory system that have contributed to major success and acclaim. It now has 820 students who attend from sixth grade through high school graduation.

Like most schools, the students attend several different classes a day. However, they remain in one class for years — an advisory prep class — and that teacher becomes their adviser throughout their education.

Students did well. This year, like in the past, all graduating seniors have been accepted into four-year colleges. But four years ago, teachers grew frustrated after the UC system cut and then eliminated the school’s $1 million per year subsidy, and the school froze salaries. By 2017, a proposal to introduce merit pay in line with other university practices finally pushed teachers to join the American Federation of Teachers, and specifically the affiliate that represented librarians on the UC San Diego campus.

The new union contract meant new terms for teachers. Out were their one-year contracts. In were rolling two-year contracts and a step-and-column pay program similar to the vast majority of traditional school districts.

Now, new Preuss teachers sign one-year contracts for each of their first five years of employment. After that, they move to the two-year deal. If a struggling teacher does not have his or her contract renewed, they get one more year to get a new contract or move on.

The situation is still more flexible than other schools. In traditional school districts in California, new educators have only a two-year probationary period, which effectively is shorter because administrators must decide by March of their second year if a teacher should be let go. After that, teachers become permanent and it becomes more difficult and costly to dismiss them — so much so that it rarely happens even in the most egregious situations.

“Things have been going well,” said Scott Barton, the principal at Preuss. “Morale has been strong, everyone is working hard and there is a lot of camaraderie. In the past, we had teachers leave for various reasons but this year we don’t have any so far.”

Throughout California, about one-third of charter schools have teachers unions, according to the California Charter School Association. Steven Baratte, a spokesman for the group, said about five local charter schools have self-reported that they have a collective bargaining arrangement at their schools. That would be about 10 percent of local charter schools. There could be more, he said.

San Diego Unified last month approved Preuss for a new five-year charter.

But the district’s superintendent, Cindy Marten, and board President Richard Barrera recently advocated for changes that could make creating new schools like Preuss more difficult. At a May press conference, Barrera and Marten joined the group In the Public Interest to release a report about how detrimental they claim charter schools are to public school system budgets.

San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

They’re pushing for a new law that would allow school districts to consider the economic impact of charters on school systems when deciding whether to approve them.

Both Barrera and Marten have previously supported charter schools. Marten’s son attended one. Barrera, who works for a union and is supported by teachers unions, sat on the board of the San Diego Cooperative Charter School. He also was the architect of a deal that created the E3 Civic High School in the downtown library  the first time San Diego Unified invested in building a new facility for a new charter school.

“Nowhere in this report does it say no more charter schools. This isn’t either for or against,” Barrera said.

But he said the time has come to clamp down on new schools.

“I think we do need to apply a higher level of scrutiny now when somebody says that they want to experiment with our students,” he said.

The In the Public Interest report argues not just that charter schools get state money that could go to other schools if they didn’t exist. It argues that charter schools duplicate management by creating autonomous organizations.

Disputes over charter schools are often seen as symptoms of deeper fights about teachers unions. After all, one major difference between many charter schools and traditional schools is the lack of union representation of the educators, which often make it much easier for charter schools to turn over their staffs and reward employees in different ways.

Charter advocates and union leaders have fought bitter battles for school board seats, particularly at the San Diego County Board of Education, where charter applicants appeal decisions if a local school district denies their applications.

Preuss’ new union raises a the question: Would the fights dissipate with more moves like this?

Fatima Cristerna-Adame, the Southern California regional director of the California Charter Schools Association, said her organization does not oppose charter school unionization attempts.

“That’s what makes charter schools great. They can decide – pick and choose what they want to do. Some decide they want collective bargaining and, if so, we offer some information to help them,” she said.

She said there’s more need for charter schools to keep trying things from which others can learn.

“We no longer live in an age where a round student needs to fit in a square hole,” she said. “For my children, I don’t want experimenting to stop. We don’t have all the answers and we never will.”

The union doesn’t seem to have changed much about how Preuss works. Teachers still feel driven to succeed and compensation improvements have helped, said Oscar Ramos, a teacher at Preuss.

“Preuss teachers are accountable to everyone: our administration, our students, and to each other. We don’t think that rolling two-year appointments has the potential to protect bad teachers as much as we think that it represents a commitment to our dedicated teachers,” Ramos said.

Barton said he also has not seen it affect fundraising. There are a lot of things going on at Preuss. The school is eagerly anticipating the addition of a new trolley line to campus to relieve some of the cost of transporting students to the school at UC San Diego’s campus.

And there’s a new problem. Preuss has traditionally filtered applicants to the school to make sure that only those who would be going to college for the first time, and whose families have low incomes, could attend.

A new state law meant to ensure charter schools take their fair share of low-income students is making it hard for Preuss officials to ensure they still only take students from low-income families. The law prohibits schools from having preferences that may limit the number of struggling students, English-language learners or students from low-income families.

But it’s not clear how they can set it so they only get those kids.

“We haven’t figured out exactly what this is going to look like,” Barton said.

Adriana Heldiz contributed to this report. 

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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