Gompers Preparatory Academy is a public charter school in Chollas View. (Brandon Quester/inewsource)

More than one-third of the teachers at Gompers Preparatory Academy in southeastern San Diego will lose their jobs later this month, a move its union said will eliminate the school’s entire physical education department and leave four math teachers for roughly 1,300 students.

Officials at the 15-year-old public charter school say the layoffs are due to a budget crisis spurred in part by COVID-19. But some teachers contend Gompers leadership is using budget cuts to take aim at their union by getting rid of its supporters. 

Phylicia Johnson told inewsource she worries for her son, a middle-schooler at Gompers whose five of six teachers will be laid off. She said a call with the school’s assistant director left her underwhelmed and without answers about how officials plan to sustain the loss of teachers. 

Why this matters

Most of Gompers Preparatory Academy’s roughly 1,300 students live in the Chollas View neighborhood of southeastern San Diego, a historically underserved population. The charter school says it’s committed to “designing an educational and social program that allows all students access to a college pathway.”

Nearly 90% of Gompers students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and according to the school, some kids may become the first in their families to attend college.

Gompers is supposed to give them a chance and “this is just going to hold these kids back even more,” Johnson said, her voice cracking.

School officials said they sent layoff notices to 26 of its 75 certificated staff and based decisions on seniority. Non-certificated staff will also lose their jobs.

Numbers provided by the San Diego Education Association, which represents the Gompers teachers union, are slightly different. The association said 29 teachers are set to lose their jobs, nearly all of whom are union supporters.

It labeled the layoffs as an “attempt to end unionization efforts” and said more than half of the teachers in the school’s English and history departments will be gone.

Cecil Steppe, a school founder and board chairman, told parents in a letter last week that the school was issuing the layoffs “with deep sadness.”

He wrote that Gompers staff members “are unique in their passion for our students and their dedication to our mission of putting ‘Students First.’ We hope they will carry this tireless and positive spirit with them in their future endeavors.”

Vallery Campos, a Gompers English teacher for the past five years, said before the layoff notices, the school had six math teachers in addition to three vacancies being filled by substitutes. She learned of her own layoff last week through an email from human resources.

Campos said students already were suffering because of insufficient staff and the challenges of distance learning forced by COVID-19.

“This really affects the community of students that has traditionally been underserved,” she said, adding that the number of math teachers left behind is “completely unacceptable.”

Campos said employees are collecting petition signatures and reaching out to parents to garner support.

“The initial plan that (Gompers) had, it really seems, was to lay us off without anybody noticing,” Campos said. “They just didn’t count on how loud we could be.”

Housed at a former underperforming middle school in Chollas View, Gompers “seeks to provide a high quality college preparatory educational option,” according to its latest charter renewal proposal. Its partnership with UC San Diego has helped students earn full-ride scholarships to the university and Chancellor Pradeep Khosla wrote in a 2018 letter that he was impressed by Gompers and “equally impressed with its students.”

But a 2017 inewsource investigation found the school’s standardized test scores were among the worst in the county, despite students’ straight A grades with courses in precalculus, advanced biology and AP history. Teachers alleged grades were inflated and students told inewsource they felt unprepared for college after graduating from Gompers.

Gompers leaders have denied the allegations. 

Johnson said she fought to get her son into Gompers, calling the school on a regular basis before a spot opened up. Two of her nephews attended Gompers and both went on to college. One of them is at UCSD on a scholarship, she said.

“This is an opportunity that my son can maybe, possibly, get a scholarship,” Johnson said, “prepare him for college, prepare him for his future. Already, there’s not a lot of opportunities out there for us. And now this?”

After hearing about the layoffs, Johnson is now considering pulling her son out of the school. When she told the assistant director at Gompers, Johnson said, “his response was, he understands.”

Gompers’ 13-person board is scheduled to meet June 23, the day before the school says it must submit its next annual budget and the last day before layoffs take effect. 

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It will be the first time the board has met since January. It has canceled two meetings this year and postponed another that was supposed to be held Tuesday. Officials said they rescheduled the last meeting “to allow us to prepare the most accurate budget possible in light of the ongoing changes.”

Board chairman Steppe said in his letter to parents that the school must reduce its operating budget by 30% “to stay fiscally solvent for the coming years.” Along with unanticipated costs related to the pandemic, he said the school already was bracing for cuts because of rising pension costs, salary increases and other expenses. 

The school also is concerned about a potential decline in student enrollment due to the pandemic.

Most of Gompers’ roughly $16.2 million budget comes from state funding. This year the school also received a nearly $2.3 million loan from the paycheck protection loan program due to the pandemic and anticipates getting more than $400,000 in federal coronavirus relief.

Gompers is expected to have nearly $4.4 million in reserves at the end of this year, but Steppe said state finance experts are advising against using it.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent recommended budget would cut K-12 education funding by $8 billion, the latest proposal from state lawmakers assumes $14 billion in federal funding will allow them to rescind those cuts. The Legislature also would use “deferrals” to make up for the losses, requiring districts to borrow money up front that the state would ultimately repay. 

But according to a Gompers statement released Tuesday, “there are many variables for the coming months and years,” and “unlike school districts, charter schools cannot operate in the red nor can we wait upon the hope of additional funding.”

“We must make staffing adjustments now to ensure the school’s continued fiscal health for the coming months and years,” the statement said.

Budgets for the next fiscal year begin July 1. Several school districts in the county, including San Diego Unified, already were facing budget woes prior to the pandemic. Sweetwater Union High School District in South County approved plans in February to lay off more than 200 employees.

A spokesperson at the San Diego Education Association said it has not been notified of any additional coronavirus-related layoffs within the San Diego Unified School District or the other two charter schools it represents.

The Gompers union has yet to sign a contract since forming in early 2019 and has alleged retaliation, bad-faith bargaining and other issues.

A separate group of the school’s teachers filed a petition in January seeking a vote to remove, or decertify, the union. Kristie Chiscano, a chemistry teacher at Gompers who organized the petition, is appealing a decision by the state Public Employment Relations Board last month that postpones a decertification vote. 

Chiscano said she isn’t surprised by the layoffs, noting that school leaders previously warned of financial issues before issuing notices and that the state is reeling from an unprecedented budget crisis.

She said she spent hours talking to concerned students and colleagues about misconceptions over the weekend.

“This is an adult issue that’s very serious, and a lot of adults need support with this,” Chiscano said. “But to involve our students through social media, to have teachers telling their students instead of talking to adults … that’s a problem. That’s what concerns me.”

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit that has provided free legal aid to Chiscano, said in a news release Wednesday that employees “just want to exercise their right to vote, free of coercion, on whether or not (San Diego Education Association) bosses deserve to maintain power at their school.” It has criticized the way the union formed, saying “the more reliable method of a secret-ballot election” wasn’t used.

Spencer Mills, a Gompers English teacher who will be laid off and is part of the bargaining team, said the union started with 96 members. That number was down to 77 by the beginning of the school year and is estimated to drop to 40 after layoffs take effect, he said.

“It’s highly concerning that (a decertification vote) would be something that would be allowed, given the layoffs we’re seeing right now,” Mills said.

Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...