Women earn about 83 cents for every dollar men make. For the first-ever woman superintendent at one Silicon Valley school district, that number was closer to 81 cents compared to her male predecessors.

Former Evergreen School District Superintendent Kathy Gomez won a more than $2 million settlement, after a federal court validated her claims last month of unequal pay and discrimination against her at the district. The case is a crucial step in ensuring women in the education space get fair pay, but also reveals how abuses of power occur at the school board level, experts said.

Gomez said the verdict serves as a bittersweet ending to a decades-long career in the same district. Born and raised in San Jose, Gomez said she wanted to be a teacher since age 14 and spent more than 30 years at Evergreen School District.

“It’s not the way you want to end your career,” Gomez told San Jose Spotlight. “I’m very happy with the decision, it’s definitely a victory. And more than that, I’m really happy that the truth came out.”

Court documents reveal Gomez’s hiring salary in 2011 was $180,000, while her male predecessor received a starting salary with benefits not offered to Gomez that totaled more than $191,000. Adjusted for inflation, the predecessor’s starting salary was $222,474.

Evergreen School District declined to comment.

Gomez initially advocated for higher pay following a 2015 district study that revealed Evergreen School District underpaid its superintendents compared to six other districts. In the next three years, Gomez’s request was met by both support and opposition from the school board. Court documents reveal that in a 2016 closed session meeting, board member Jim Zito allegedly told two female board members that the reason they supported Gomez was because “they had the same thing between their legs.”

At the same meeting, the board verbally agreed to increase Gomez’s wage, but reneged on the decision in June 2017 following several changes in leadership. That reversal prompted Gomez to file a Department of Fair Employment and Housing complaint the same year. Court documents also reveal Gomez faced retaliation in the form of a “punitive and discriminatory” performance review authored by Zito, who has been on the board since 2010. The board, however, signed off on the review.  Gomez ultimately filed a lawsuit in 2020.

Zito declined to comment and referred San Jose Spotlight to the district’s responses to the lawsuit. He’s running to retain his board seat in the November election. Two newcomers, Stan Rose and Mary Pollett, and three incumbents—Christopher Corpus, Marisa Hanson and Zito—are all vying for three seats on the district school board.

Discrimination was apparent

The unequal pay and discrimination Gomez faced is tied to more disparities, including fewer leadership positions and less retirement security for women, said Sonya Mehta, Gomez’s attorney.

“Women are not being promoted into the highest levels, even though they’re the ones that are familiar with the work in these women-dominated fields like teaching,” Mehta told San Jose Spotlight. “When women are underpaid their whole life, you contribute less to retirement… The case for women everywhere is that there’s not only a paid wage gap, but there’s a huge pension gap.”

Her decision to file the equal pay lawsuit was difficult, but ultimately spurred by multiple instances of unfair treatment, Gomez said. She also made the decision to retire early in January 2019 as a result.

“The board members who were in the room when that promise was made to me (in 2016), they reneged on it… I was hurt,” Gomez told San Jose Spotlight. “I was shocked that they would go back on something that they said because I had trusted them.”

Tensions on Evergreen’s school board also rose behind closed doors, said Sylvia Alvarez, a former district board member during Gomez’s tenure as superintendent. Alvarez was present when Zito allegedly made the sexist comment in 2016.

“As soon as that came out of his mouth, I just shot up to my feet. How could that come out of his mouth? It was obscene,” Alvarez told San Jose Spotlight, referring to Zito’s comment.

Losing good people like Gomez has been the most difficult part of the process, said Alvarez, who ultimately left the board at the end of 2018 following months of discord with other board members.

“I was the only one who supported her, and they were angry with me because they wanted me to be in consensus with them,” Alvarez told San Jose Spotlight. “Behind closed doors it got ugly.”

The case is a victory for women who are often underpaid for doing the same job, but also reveals how school board tensions can cost the district—and ultimately students—millions of dollars, said Brian Wheatley, a current San Jose Unified School District board member and former president of the Evergreen Teachers Association. Wheatley testified in the lawsuit.

Wheatley said voters should choose their school board members wisely given their impact.

Gomez’s victory will encourage other women in leadership and education to stand up for themselves, Mehta said.

For Gomez, it’s a relief to finish the yearslong battle, she said. She still thinks fondly of her time at Evergreen School District.

“I’m really happy and proud that I was able to spend an entire career in one place,” Gomez told San Jose Spotlight. “Having that truth out there makes me as happy as getting the award.”

This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight. Please use the original link when sharing: https://sanjosespotlight.com/former-silicon-valley-santa-clara-county-san-jose-evergreen-school-district-leader-wins-2m-discrimination-case-pay-wages/

Loan-Anh Pham | San Jose Spotlight

San Jose Spotlight