S.F. Jewish teacher files grievance over discrimination

First her staff mailbox disappeared. Then a co-worker told her that the boss had it in for her.

And sure enough, things would only get worse for an unidentified teacher at San Francisco's Cesar Chavez School.

The Latino principal allegedly tried to transfer the Jewish teacher, after deciding she was too Jewish to instruct the school's many Latino students, according to officials of the S.F.-based American Jewish Congress.

In the end, it was the principal, Pilar Mejia, who was transferred from the school Jan. 29 following a school district investigation of her actions, which were considered discriminatory.

AJCongress is representing the teacher in a formal grievance filed with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. AJCongress declined to reveal the teacher's name.

The principal, meanwhile, is well-loved by parents whose children attend Chavez. Scores of parents, Latino community groups and even Mejia's Jewish ex-husband spoke out in her defense at a Feb. 2 community meeting. Tracy Salkowitz, the director of the local AJCongress office, was the only representative of the organized Jewish community in attendance.

Since that meeting, Salkowitz said other Jewish employees of the San Francisco Unified School District have come forward with their own discrimination woes.

The "handful" of callers told Salkowitz that the story of the Cesar Chavez teacher is all too familiar. "Similar [things] have happened to me too," she recalled some saying.

"We've heard too much about what has gone on in the district — that, in particular, Jewish employees have received very harsh treatment," she said.

But the AJCongress leader declined to give details, as her agency has not yet investigated the reports.

Mejia is something of a community hero, who began her school-district career as a bus driver before rising through the ranks. She is widely known as an advocate for immigrant children and a defender of grassroots activism.

But trouble began more than a year ago, when another Cesar Chavez teacher reported that Mejia had mentioned objections to having "three white, Jewish women" at the school teaching Spanish-speaking kids, according to AJCongress. In a San Francisco Examiner account, Superintendent Bill Rojas confirmed that the principal had made similar comments on numerous occasions.

Salkowitz spoke out at the gathering in defense of Rojas' decision to transfer Mejia. She was booed for her comments.

While the Jewish stance on the matter contrasts sharply with that of the Latino community, Salkowitz said the issue has not created a rift between the two communities.

"We've been working on immigration issues for many years together. There were people in that audience that we've worked side by side with," she said.

The relationship "gave them pause because they weren't so quick to condemn me and probably thought that there was some merit to these charges."

One such ally is Francisco Herrera, who works for San Francisco's Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, of which Salkowitz is a board member.

Herrera doesn't feel that relations between the Jewish and Latino communities has been sullied by differences over "a labor issue." Yet he stands with his community in defense of Mejia.

"This woman respects diversity to a radical level," he said.

Herrera is also a Cesar Chavez parent and husband of a teacher at the school. He credited the former principal with encouraging parent participation in critical school policies and transforming the campus into a kind of community center for all ethnic groups.

Herrera said he feels bad that what began as a move to consolidate four part-time positions, including that of the aggrieved Jewish teacher, into two full-time positions was politicized into a race issue.

"The four part-time teachers couldn't participate in the curriculum development," he explained. With "everything at the school happening by committee, team work is very important. These part-time teachers couldn't participate. They would be gone" for the day.

Now the parents are asking the district both for Mejia to be reinstated until the end of the school year and to have some say in selecting her replacement, Herrera said.

District officials have been silent on both requests, he added.

They also declined to respond to repeated phone calls from the Bulletin. However, Rojas in earlier communications with officials of the Jewish Community Relations Council indicated that he had been aware of the grievances at Cesar Chavez.

"He told us at the meeting that he would investigate" further, said JCRC board member Mark Schickman.

"We've been involved with this teacher nearly a year," Schickman added, noting that the teacher did, in fact, speak Spanish and had strong performance reviews throughout her tenure in the district.

"The decision to consolidate the positions did not go through the usual process," he said, which prompted the local teachers' union and district administrators to follow up on the matter when grievances were made.

Schickman said the JCRC has been active in maintaining a dialogue with the Latino community.

"We wanted to make sure that our concerns were those of discrimination," he said. "If you shift it so that we said we don't want Hispanic teachers teaching our children, it would be clear that that's not OK."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.