Hayden Gore, president and Roxanna Sepehri, vice president of High Tech Education Collective celebrate after the votes were counted from union members to ratify the contract at the San Diego Education Association on Feb. 2, 2023.
(Right) Hayden Gore, president of High Tech Education Collective, and Roxanne Sepehri, vice president, celebrate after the votes were counted from union members to ratify the contract at the San Diego Education Association headquarters in Mission Valley on Feb. 2, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

On Thursday evening union representatives for High Tech High school sites trickled into the San Diego Education Association’s Mission Valley auditorium.

As they nibbled on plates of bourbon chicken, fried rice, chow mein and mandarin salad, they talked excitedly among themselves. After more than a year of organizing and protracted negotiations with High Tech High’s management, the union members were gathered to ratify their inaugural contract. The contract gives educators benefits and workplace improvements they’d long argued were necessary, including a restructured pay scale and retroactive pay increases, guaranteed lunch breaks, an established teacher evaluation process and a limit on class sizes. 

They were feeling good, but there was an anxious air about the room, as representatives brought in manila folders filled with union membership forms and ballots. High Tech High’s board of trustees had unanimously approved the contract just a week earlier.

Hayden Gore and Roxanne Sepehri cut a cake at the San Diego Education Association headquarters in Mission Valley on Feb. 2, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

“I’m just so glad that we’re coming to some kind of healing point with this long process,” High Tech High trustee Albert Lin said during that meeting. He said he’d never expected to be on the management side of this sort of debate, and that the process had been hard. Moving forward from the pain and rebuilding trust was vital, Lin said. This contract was only the beginning.

“This is a milestone,” said trustee Lidia Rafia. “What I observed was a lot of passion, a lot of commitment. And I hope that we take that power and commitment and that passion towards our students succeeding now that we have the negotiations kind of hopefully in our rearview mirror.”

But the negotiations won’t be in the rearview mirror long. The union will soon begin negotiating for the charter network’s non-certificated staff, everyone from custodians to lunch workers to academic coaches. The union’s certificated teachers will also be back at the bargaining table in May.

And despite the congratulations, the path to get to the agreement had been rocky. The union submitted multiple unfair labor practice charges against High Tech High management. California’s Public Employment Relations Board, which handles collective bargaining disputes, decided in favor of the union on both charges. Frustration with the board reached such a fever pitch that in October the union passed a searing resolution of no confidence in the board.

Hayden Gore, president of the High Tech Education Collective, standing, and Cheryl Coney, an organizer for the California Teachers Association, sitting second from right, applaud during a High Tech Education Collective meeting at the San Diego Education Association headquarters in Mission Valley on Feb. 2, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

But after negotiations stalled in November, the two sides reached a tentative agreement in mid-January with the help of a state-appointed mediator. The final hold ups had been a disagreement over the appeal process for fired teachers, and how long of a probationary period teachers would have. The union wanted a neutral third party to have the final say in appeals, while High Tech High management wanted it to be the CEO. The union won that battle. High Tech High management got the three-year probationary period it wanted.

The speed with which the two sides came to an agreement after the impasse surprised some members. “I thought that we were going to have to strike to get a ratified contract,” Ann McAfee said. “It just felt like there was so much resistance and that (High Tech High management) had dug their heels in.”

Around 5:30 p.m., McAfee, the head of High Tech’s election committee was handed the stack of manila envelopes and retreated to a corner with two others to tally up the ballots. As McAfee’s team counted, the site representatives made announcements.

Hayden Gore, the president of the High Tech Education Collective, said the victory wasn’t just for High Tech High teachers – a union president from the Monterey Bay Teachers Association recently sought him out during a tour of a High Tech campus to congratulate him on the unionization, he said.

“People know,” Gore said. “I think it’s important to understand that we are not only making a difference – and a substantial difference – in the working lives of our teachers in our school, but we are hope and inspiration for other schools and charter schools throughout the state and the country,” he said.

Eighty-one percent of teachers had chosen to become dues-paying members of the San Diego Education Association – the union that will represent the teachers of High Tech High – a requirement to be able to vote on a contract. At some schools, every teacher had joined, while the lowest percentage was 62. Some who chose not to join were ideologically opposed, some had had bad experiences with unions and others felt they couldn’t afford the dues. Many were still on the fence, representatives said.

When McAfee returned with votes tallied, Cheryl Coney – an organizer for the California Teachers Association who helped guide High Tech High teachers through the unionization process – readied a cake in a kitchenette near the back of the room. “It’s either a happy cake or a sad cake,” one teacher joked.

“Out of 291 votes, we have one ‘no’ vote against 290 votes for a grand total of 99.6 percent (in favor of ratification),” McAfee announced. The room erupted in cheers. As more ballots trickled in, that number would increase to 318 for ratification and one against.

As teachers cut into their cake and sang “happy contract day to us” to the tune of “happy birthday,” Coney stood beaming. She’d been approached by High Tech teachers interested in unionizing at least once every year for the six years prior to this successful attempt. But teachers would always end up leaving before progress could be made. “They deserve this,” Coney said.

High Tech Education Collective during a meeting at the San Diego Education Association headquarters in Mission Valley on Feb. 2, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Many teachers said they wanted to unionize because of what they viewed as a culture of arbitrary firings at the charter network, and insufficient support that produced rampant burnout. High Tech High schools have some of the least experienced teachers of any school in the county, according to data gathered for Voice of San Diego’s 2021 Parent’s Guide to San Diego Schools. Educators said that lack of experienced educators was especially troubling because of the difficult nature of High Tech High’s project-based learning approach to instruction, in which teachers have to design curriculum themselves.

For Gore, unionization was only a matter of time. High Tech High’s project-based model, and its embrace of equity and other similarly progressive values attracted teachers from across the country like Gore, who relocated from Texas to work at the prestigious charter network. But, he said, those teachers were also inevitably individuals who expected those values to be reflected in the way the institution treated its workers.

“You can give lip service to something for only so long before people truly embrace it, begin to believe it and then begin to demand it,” Gore said. “In many ways, that’s exactly what happened at High Tech High. If these are your foundational values, then you can’t see this union as anything but a celebration, because we are holding the organization to account for what it says it believes in,” he said.

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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  1. I used to run a facility that had a very rough labor relationship before I took over. It took years to repair the lack of trust, the outright game playing with people’s lives, on and on that had been the norm before.

    People want to know that there are procedures for handling disagreements, they want some certainty in their lives, especially in work schedules, they want to be respected, they don’t want a work place that is filled with strife, in short they want to be treated as mature, responsible, adults.

    It is hard, hard work to repair a broken relationship, but very worthwhile for everyone.

  2. Sad day for what was once an inspiring project.
    Taking suggestions for the new name…
    I’m on break High?
    Lazy Acres?
    Wall Mart Preparatory?

  3. I’m so glad an agreement has been reached. This school is amazing and the teachers should be compensated. As a mom who sends her child to this school, I am relieved and hope that management continues to work well with the teachers. We don’t want to lose good teachers as we did last year.

  4. As an alumnus of High Tech High schools, I am delighted to see this! Reflecting back, one of the few negative aspects of my experience was the insecurity experienced by the faculty. The students could feel it and it was a topic of discussion (even over a decade ago). I hope they are able to continue to grow and provide opportunities for students for many years to come.

  5. The choice to begin this article with a description of the food being consumed is an interesting one. Here we have a room full of people eating bourbon chicken, mandarin salad and cake who are taking the role of oppressed laborer, with unfair working conditions, demanding retroactive pay increases for the jobs they agreed to. Labor unions used to save peoples lives who actually had real problems. This is a far cry from that. It’s now a power grab that results in less accountability and eventually a poorer quality of education.

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