Gompers Riveroll
Gompers director Vincent Riveroll interacts with students before the school day starts in 2016. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The newly minted teachers union at Gompers Preparatory Academy in southeastern San Diego is still without a contract a year after formation and now faces a challenge that could mark its end.

Gompers’ chemistry teacher Kristie Chiscano and at least 30 percent of her colleagues are seeking to dismantle the union and filed a decertification petition this month with the state Public Employment Relations Board, or PERB. Whether teachers will get to vote to remove the union anytime soon, though, remains to be seen.

That’s because the petition comes less than a month after Gompers’ teachers union lodged an unfair practice charge with PERB alleging charter school leaders bargained in bad faith, retaliated against an English teacher who serves on the union bargaining team, interfered with employees’ rights and tried to dissuade employees from becoming union members.

The union — which is organized with the California Teachers Association and San Diego Education Association and represents roughly 78 Gompers employees — is asking PERB to extend the union’s official “certification year” due to the alleged violations. An extension would prevent a decertification vote from happening until the new deadline passes.

Union leaders also want PERB to order Gompers leaders to cease and desist unlawful actions, follow a bargaining schedule, destroy a letter of reprimand issued to the bargaining team member and reassign him to his prior high school teaching position from his current middle school teaching position, records show.

Gompers director Vincent Riveroll briefly denied the union’s charges in an email and said the school “looks forward to being able to respond. While the decertification petition is pending and labor negotiations are ongoing, GPA has no further comment.” School officials are expected to formally respond to the claims by Jan. 23.

The new developments are the latest union tensions at the school, which broke away from San Diego Unified School District leadership almost 15 years ago to become a public charter school serving grades six through 12. Roughly 1,320 students are enrolled, according to state data.

Even early on, the union tussled with school leaders, alleging interference in the union’s formation and halting the addition of a sixth period elective course and a lengthened summer school session, which teachers are required to teach. Among other things, the union is seeking higher pay and “a transparent and equitable compensation scale,” in place of the current merit pay system.

The union also wants input on the school calendar and student discipline matters, as well as a new system to deal with teacher discipline and growth monitored by a third party, according to a letter circulated in fall 2018 — prior to its creation.

Charter schools traditionally operate without employee unions, giving them more flexibility in hiring and firing decisions, as well as compensation and other employee and school decisions. But Gompers joined a growing list of charter schools when it unionized last year. Others locally include Harriet Tubman Charter School, Iftin Charter School, Helix Charter High School, Steele Canyon High School, Darnall Charter School, MAAC Community Charter School, Discovery Charter Elementary and The Preuss School.

In the 2016-17 school year, San Diego Unified teacher pay averaged about $80,800, while Gompers teacher pay hovered around $56,400 on average, according to the school’s latest accountability report. Teachers in traditional San Diego Unified schools have seen across-the-board raises since then, which likely exacerbated the disparity, but also the district’s budget problems. The latest state data shows a Gompers teacher has an average of five years’ experience in the district, while the average San Diego Unified teacher has 14.

According to the union’s PERB charge, during bargaining in September, Gompers’ leaders proposed “a compensation system that would permit GPA to pay above a base rate at its discretion in some circumstances.” The union objected, arguing it would allow for the same favoritism seen in the current system.

Chiscano, who obtained help for the decertification petition from the anti-labor nonprofit National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, did not answer inquiries from VOSD.

At least part of the concern, though, appears to center on the “card-check” method union organizers employed to form the union, where votes were collected from employees individually, rather than seeking votes from every employee in a secret-ballot election.

In a press release, National Right to Work President Mark Mix called the card-check method controversial and less reliable, and accused the union of “legal trickery to trap teachers in a union they oppose by blocking their right to hold a decertification election.”

Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association, criticized the foundation’s involvement in the decertification effort, and noted more than 70 percent of Gompers’ teachers signed the original petition to form the union.

“An election did not occur at the time because the school’s management acknowledged the overwhelming support for a union,” Borden wrote. In deciding whether to hold a decertification vote, “PERB will consider any violations of the law made by the school that would make an election unfair.”

Mary Weiss, supervising regional attorney for PERB, said in an email to VOSD, “Usually, but not always, the next step is for PERB to conduct an election where each bargaining unit member may cast a ballot. At this time, PERB had not determined whether an election will occur.”

Borden said the union’s unfair practice 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” and that the school’s union members “are committed to continuing to bargain for a fair contract – one that allows for transparency and equity for all educators – and will not be distracted by this attempt to weaken their union.”

The union and school leadership has yet to reach a tentative agreement for a new teacher contract. Riveroll, the school’s director, told employees in a July message the bargaining process at other charter schools that have unionized can take up to two years on average.

Riveroll also said Gompers’ teacher retention rate dropped this year to 73 percent, from 86 percent the year prior.

A September message to employees from the school’s bargaining team accused the union of sowing division and claimed the union also met with the NAACP to try to stop the organization from giving Riveroll, the school’s director, an award. The message concluded, “Last year’s divisiveness was hard on all of us, including our parents and our students. When we are divided, no one wins but the union. We hope that the bonds and the trust created by our many years together will allow us to move forward together as a team to put our students first.”

Borden denied the award accusation and said the union even bought a table at the NAACP event so teachers could show Riveroll support.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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