Gompers Preparatory Academy on May 10, 2023.
Gompers Preparatory Academy on May 10, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

For the third time in nearly five years, teachers at Gompers Preparatory Academy are set to decide whether they want a union.  

The recurring fight has split staff at the charter school and created a simmering tension between union supporters and opponents. But the issues animating opposition to and support for the union remain relatively unchanged. 

Gompers, a former traditional public school in Chollas View that serves an overwhelmingly Latino student population, long struggled with safety issues and low performance. In the years since its 2005 conversion to a charter school, it has been repeatedly held up as an example of a successful transformation of a struggling school.  

But in late 2018, teachers at Gompers joined a growing number of charter school faculty locally and statewide to unionize. Teachers said frustrations with low pay led to difficulty recruiting new teachers, and a lack of teacher input and extended hours caused burnout among staff. Still, the school’s transformation was touted by those in favor of unionizing. In a letter explaining their goals, teachers wrote “Gompers Preparatory has taken monumental steps toward achievement for all students … We aim to continue that work and push Gompers forward, in the same direction.” 

The union, Gompers Teachers Association, has been met with fierce opposition. It took more than two years to secure its first contract, with the union filing multiple unfair labor practice charges during that time. The first effort to decertify the union culminated in an unsuccessful 2021 vote. Voting for the latest decertification effort began on May 10 and will run through early June. 

Vallery Campos, an English teacher at Gompers, said the protracted battle has taken a toll. She wasn’t originally part of the unionization efforts but said she got involved because she watched a neighboring English classroom endure a revolving door of teachers and subs. She said the school still has a significant number of vacancies. To Campos, the union represented a path to stability. 

“In order for us to attract and to retain qualified, credentialed and experienced teachers, we needed to make some changes,” Campos said. Those changes include considering previous experience and education when hiring and setting pay and increasing overall teacher pay. Gompers teachers on average make nearly $30,000 less than San Diego Unified schools overall. 

“Teachers need to go where they’re going to be able to support themselves, and we’re just trying to make sure that we’re making GPA competitive,” Campos said. In conversations with new teachers, she said many have cited the union as a reason they came to Gompers.  

Campos acknowledges there have been difficulties. A recent union-negotiated contract granted raises to many teachers, but standardizing a wonky pre-union salary scale that caused some teachers to be paid much more than others has been challenging.  

“We’re going to have growing pains as we adjust into a new era, but having a union just gives workers an equal voice at the table,” Campos said. “I don’t think any worker would oppose being heard as a collective, and having the issues that they’re facing in their classrooms that are preventing them from being the best educators to be listened to.” 

Miguel Baltierra, another Gampers teacher, said the collective negotiations are one of the main reasons he supports the union. “There are some teachers at our school who are afraid to speak out and advocate for themselves. I have a lot of friends at Gompers who are teachers, and they have families and are always telling me how they’re struggling,” Baltierra said. 

“As a teacher we have so much on our plate already. I don’t have a family but I would be super stressed out if I had to negotiate my contract by myself and be a teacher and have a family. That would just be way too much for me, and I don’t think that is fair,” he said. 

He agrees that the union is still a work-in-progress but feels there’s been an undue focus on excising it by some teachers instead of collaborating to improve it. 

“It’s like a little baby. We have to care for it and make it better together,” Baltierra said. 

But for opponents, the union is more of an invading force that’s stifling the voices of teachers than an outlet for them to be heard. They argue it provides less flexibility for teachers, that the cost of union priorities like teacher raises could force programs they value to be eliminated and that teachers are capable of advocating for themselves. 

For Sean Bentz, a computer teacher at Gompers who kickstarted the latest decertification effort, those original beefs are all still part of his rationale for wanting to get rid of the union. Bentz submitted the decertification petition in March, with the guidance of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit that represents workers pushing back against unions and has been involved in the Gompers dispute since 2020.  

“A lack of effective representation and an unwillingness by the union to listen to our concerns is one of the main reasons behind our decision (to push to decertify),” Bentz wrote in an email. He believes the union has damaged teachers’ ability to communicate and collaborate with school leadership. 

“SDEA submits proposals that are financially not feasible and would put our school in the red, then touts them to teachers,” Bentz wrote. He also complained of teacher turnover and vacant positions at Gompers, arguing the union’s presence caused those problems. 

For Cynthia Ornelas, a sixth-grade teacher at Gompers who opposes the union, one of the things she feels is at stake is freedom in the classroom.

She fishes for lobsters in the bay in her free time and brings them to class so students can measure them and convert the measurements from centimeters to inches. And she has students take spelling tests by candlelight because she grew tired of kids trying to cheat. Doing so has actually increased students’ vocabularies and is an example of charter schools meeting students where they’re at and making learning real, Ornelas said. 

But she believes these sorts of off-the-wall strategies could get her fired because they don’t comport with district lesson plans. Ornelas said the lack of a union attracted her to Gompers in the first place. She took a pay cut when she moved to the school from another charter because she was enamored with Gompers’ mission and approach, which includes counseling for students before and after they enter college. 

“We just need the union to say goodbye and let us teachers now advocate for ourselves in our own individual ways and together,” Ornelas said. 

Beyond the back and forth, it’s clear Gompers’ union era has been rife with conflict. Opponents of the union, which includes some parents, created a website touting their stance and even staged a mock funeral for Gompers crediting the union and organizers with the school’s death. Meanwhile, union supporters have been accused of sowing division with on-campus actions. 

One thing both sides believe is that they will prevail in the upcoming election. Campos and Bentz both expressed confidence the vote would turn out in their favor. But even if this decertification vote fails, there’s no guarantee another one isn’t around the corner. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at jakob@vosd.org and followed...

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  1. Beantz was making six-figures as a computer elective teacher who operated as a tyrant among the children. He is against the union because he isn’t deserving of his salary while teachers with credentials and over eight years of experience teaching an actual core subject were only getting paid in the 60s prior to the union. He will always be anti-union because it would impact how he is paid. His decision is a selfish one that benefits him, not the kids. The people against the union were paid for their “loyalty” to the toxic status quo. It is so sad watching this ridiculous battle still continue. YOUR TEACHERS DESERVE TO BE PAID LIKE OTHER TEACHERS IN THE CITY. Why is that such a hard thing to understand? That’s why y’all have lost so many of your best teachers over the last five years. You only take care of those willing to continue the toxicity of the past. Do better. And yes, I’ll be pro-union and will speak up against the nonsense of anti-union talk until this is no longer a story.

  2. Way to go Gompers!
    Get rid of that dead Union bloat and keep teaching well.
    Already outperforming the union schools I expect nothing less.

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