‘Everything is in Jeopardy’ – Gompers Charter Battles San Diego Unified
This is the first in a two-part series on Gompers Preparatory Academy in Southeastern San Diego. Read the second installment here.
Fifteen years ago, I had the privilege of sitting in the boardroom when San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education authorized the conversion of Gompers Middle School to an independent charter school.
This was a turbulent time, with Alan Bersin as superintendent, a teachers union in revolt and a dysfunctional school board. In this midst of this tumult came the Gompers drama.
The passion and energy in that room in 2005 was something I’ll not soon forget. It was a raucous meeting, with an overflowing board room and an electrified audience that was unapologetic and relentless in its demands for action.
It said to me that when parents, students and communities come together, they have the power to change intransigent elected officials and take back control of their neighborhood schools.
Since then, a number of superintendents have ruled the roost and trustees have come and gone. But what seems to have remained constant is the baffling need for San Diego Unified to continue to find new ways to undermine Gompers.
The attempts over the years to destabilize the school are too numerous to list, but this latest effort on the district’s part has the community truly alarmed and mobilized. It’s about the fight to keep Gompers alive.
In 2019, Gompers received reauthorization for its charter from the school district for another five years, just as the school has received every five years since 2005.
But this time, the district removed a clause in the renewal contract that guaranteed all Gompers personnel who were originally San Diego Unified employees a right of return to the district.
To translate: Gompers personnel who were granted on-loan status by the school district to work at Gompers must decide by next March whether to quit San Diego Unified and choose Gompers, or to leave Gompers and remain a district employee.
Cecil Steppe, chair of the Gompers Preparatory Academy Board of Directors, called this a direct attack on the ability “to keep the GPA mission alive.”
Steppe, who has a long history with Gompers going back to the 1960s, said the district, which authorizes and oversees its charter schools, has not honored its commitments.
In a letter to the Gompers community, he said the district promised Gompers’ on-loan employees – which includes founder and director Vince Riveroll – that they would never need to resign from the district to work at Gompers.
“Knowing it would take consistent, brave and innovative leadership, SDUSD promised the on-loan agreement to these charter founders for the life of the charter,” Steppe wrote.
Gompers Prep founders have served students, families, staff and the community “with impressive results in safety, school culture, parent engagement and student achievement,” he said. “It is an understatement to say they have made good on their promise to serve students first.”
The district has broken its promise by cancelling the on-loan agreements, and “everything is in jeopardy,” he said.
Steppe, past president of the Urban League of San Diego County and a highly respected figure in the community, has been involved in the charter movement for Gompers since 2005 when the school board first approved the charter.
At that time, there were 10 district employees at Gompers. Today only four remain.
These four – Riveroll, Assistant Director Lisa Maples, Executive Assistant Paz Garcia-Ramirez, and Welcome Center Lead Judith Franceschi – are the founders and are key to the school’s continued success, said Gompers Chief Business Officer Jenny Parsons.
“Our original charter in 2005 and every charter renewal after that included language that stated that all on-loan employees could remain on-loan,” Parsons said.
She said they’ve had verbal threats to that right many times over the years.
“To pull this out from under them puts them in a difficult position because they love what they’re doing. They’re very committed to the community.” - Cecil Steppe
In response to these threats, in 2010 then SDUSD Superintendent Bill Kowba made a commitment to Steppe, Parsons said, that the on-loan status for district staff who worked at Gompers would remain on-loan for the life of the charter.
Every five years the Gompers charter has been renewed with that guarantee included. But at the last charter reauthorization in 2019, the district said they would not renew the charter with that language, Parsons said.
Gompers needed the renewal, so they agreed to the new terms, hoping the district would honor its original promise to keep on-loan conditions in place.
The district renewed the on-loan arrangement for 2019-2020, and again this year on June 23 for 2020-2021, Parsons said.
But three days later the district informed Gompers that the on-loan status was being withdrawn and the SD Unified employees working at Gompers would need to decide by March 2021 whether to stay at Gompers or return to the district.
“We felt that we were in a tough place,” Parsons said. “The renewal was necessary for us to keep doors open. We stood down and removed that language and really trusted … that they still cared enough about the success of the school and the original promise to keep renewing on an annual basis.”
Steppe said this is an underserved community that has benefited from the vision and leadership of Riveroll, whom he calls a master teacher.
“To pull this out from under them puts them in a difficult position because they love what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re very committed to the community.”
“If there’s anything that makes me angry, this angers me. They don’t deserve that.”
Located in the Chollas View neighborhood of southeast San Diego, Gompers Middle School first opened its doors in 1955.
Once a thriving neighborhood school with a solid reputation, Gompers by the late 90s was rife with racial tension and gang violence. Police presence was common. The school was considered dangerous and one of the worst-performing schools in the district.
In 2004, the neighborhood was galvanized into action by a pivotal figure in principal Vince Riveroll. A strong charter school movement at the time under Bersin’s leadership helped the community understand the possibilities that an independent district charter school might bring.
In March of 2005 the San Diego Unified School Board, under pressure, voted unanimously – but not without reservations – to approve the school’s conversion to Gompers Charter Middle School, serving students in grades 6-8.
An association with the University of California San Diego, one that continues today, helped convince board members that UCSD guidance and resources would boost the school’s chances for success.
UCSD Professor Cecil Lytle told the school board in 2005, “We want to move from a culture of survival to a culture of learning.”
In 2009 Gompers, named after labor union leader Samuel Gompers, expanded to serve students in grades 6-12 and became Gompers Preparatory Academy, graduating its first class of seniors in 2012.
In the 15 years since becoming a charter school, Gompers under Riveroll’s guidance has transformed itself into a school that prides itself on college-going rates, safety on campus, school attendance and parent engagement.
The school’s mission is to accelerate academic achievement “through a college preparatory culture and curriculum.”
Policies implemented include: a longer school day and school year, required attendance, smaller class sizes, after-school and Saturday tutoring, required active parent involvement, school uniforms and parent education courses.
Academic achievement, however, is mixed. The school’s 2019-2020 School Accountability Report Card indicated that the percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards for the 2018-2019 school year was only 41 percent in English Language Arts and 29 percent in math.
This is compared to SDUSD’s 55 percent in ELA and 46 percent in math, and 50 percent in ELA and 39 percent for math statewide. The numbers for California and SDUSD are nothing to brag about; nonetheless, Gompers’ numbers are worse.
“We know we still have a long way to go,” Parsons said, noting that students come to Gompers often reading at a second- or third-grade level. She said the school would like to expand to include the elementary grades, “so we’re not faced with such an uphill battle.”
On the positive side, the data show that all 2017-2018 Gompers graduates completed all courses required for UC/CSU admission.
A memo dated Oct. 27 to SDUSD Supt. Cindy Marten from the Office of Charter Schools director Deidre Walsh addresses the rationale to end the on-loan agreements.
“With the exception of the four employees at Gompers, across the district’s 43 authorized charter schools employing over 1,000 employees, 100 percent of charter employees are employed directly by the charter schools,” it reads. “Eliminating the on-loan agreements reduces confusion for all stakeholders.”
Walsh also wrote that the four on-loan employees receive district salaries and benefits, in contrast with the other Gompers staff, “thereby creating a two-tiered system among co-workers on the same campus.
“Ending on-loan agreements ensures all Gompers workers are treated equitably under a universal salary and benefits structure.”
“These four leaders are instrumental to any success we have had as a school and community. They set the groundwork and continue to model the way forward. Their presence is what makes a school like GPA such a success. They are GPA."
The only confusion for Parsons and Steppe is why the district is doing this. And the equitable treatment argument seems lame, considering that, to date, about 115 Gompers staff members, representing nearly 80 percent of the school’s staff, have signed a letter, posted on the GPA website, asking the district to withdraw the ultimatum.
“These four leaders are instrumental to any success we have had as a school and community,” it reads. “They set the groundwork and continue to model the way forward. Their presence is what makes a school like GPA such a success. They are GPA.
“The announcement that SDUSD has broken their promise to allow our community to keep our leaders is heartbreaking and unfair. The effect of the loss of these leaders would have unthinkable consequences.”
The letter states that before becoming a charter school, Gompers was failing and “processed students instead of nurturing them” – that it was a place with uninterested staff who “too often shrugged and remained complacent while daily systemic injustices unfolded before people’s eyes and nothing was done.”
Today they work, they say, toward “a better future for students who deserve the same opportunity as their more privileged peers just 30 minutes up the freeway.”
“The excuses they’re coming up with for why this is necessary are laughable,” Parsons said. One of them is that they’re faced with budget deficits for the coming year “which is true, so they need to know staffing requirements.”
“This is a district that has 15,000 employees and they are telling us that these four employees are actually putting a wrench in the gears of their human resources department? That’s ridiculous,” she said.
Parsons said there is no financial burden for the district to keep the on-loan status.
GPA fully reimburses SDUSD for all expenses for each of these employees, and has since the beginning of this arrangement, she said.
Why Not Just Choose Gompers?
Parsons said if the four founders resigned from the district they would lose access to future retirement benefits and their current district benefits, including lower costs for medical, dental, vision, life and other insurance coverage.
“As a large organization that employs over 15,000 people, the district is able to maintain a benefits package with lower out-of-pocket cost for their employees,” Parsons said. The four individuals would have “little time to adjust their career, healthcare and financial plans.”
If they chose to stay at Gompers, said Steppe, “the benefits that they would receive in their retirement would not stick with them.”
But SDUSD’s communications director Maureen Magee disputed this, saying in an email, “As Gompers currently fully funds the four on-loan employees, including their salaries, benefits, and STRS/PERS retirement pensions, should they choose to remain at Gompers, there would be no reason to lose any of their benefits.”
She said all other district charter schools have successfully transitioned over the past 10 years, with no loss to the on-loan employees whether they remain at the charter school or return to the district.
“I’m not aware of anything that prevents Gompers from continuing to pay salary, benefits and pension costs for all four employees,” Magee said.
Parsons said the statement that there will be no loss to these individuals is flawed.
Resigning from the district before they are ready to retire would prevent them as veteran district employees from being eligible for district retirement benefits, including early retirement benefits that can provide financial health support up to $15,000 annually for five years, she said.
Parsons said financial matters are not the only consideration.
The district’s response “minimizes the impact of this major decision on the on-loan founders,” she said, calling it personal and difficult. “Resigning from the district is not a simple decision.”
“Why pick this time,” Parsons asked, “when we’re dealing with a pandemic where there are health concerns, economic concerns, education concerns. We already have our hands full with those challenges.”
“The district’s response diminishes this weighty decision that our on-loan employees should not have to make during a global pandemic,” she said.
Responding to the question of why the district needs to do this, Magee said, “Gompers is an independent employer. On-loan agreements by definition are temporary and were offered to charter schools when independent legal status was still developing.
“Gompers, and other charter schools, are now permanent independent employers. There is no reason to continue on-loan agreements.”
For more on the Gompers battle with San Diego Unified, Friday’s story will offer parent and school board perspectives.