Charter schools' union gaining national attention
Charter schools' union gaining national attention
Alameda charter school staffers’ decision to unionize is receiving national attention. The incoming president of the National Education Association – a national teachers union – is coming to Alameda to shine light on the organizing efforts of staffers at Alameda Community Learning Center and Nea Community Learning Center.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia will be on the schools’ new Third Street campus on Friday and will hold a press conference to talk about teachers’ organizing efforts at 4 p.m. Also scheduled to attend are representatives from the Alameda Education Association – the local teachers union – and California Virtual Academy, billed as the nation’s largest online charter high school.
The new Nea ACLC United union was certified in November of 2013 after nearly three-quarters of the schools’ 60 staffers – teachers and non-teaching staff – signed petitions to organize, and they’ve been bargaining for a contract with management for the two schools since. Carrie Blanche, who has worked at Alameda Community Learning Center for 14 years and is the special education director and art resource specialist for both schools, said she initiated organizing efforts that spring after the nonprofit’s governing board eliminated teachers’ salary schedules and increased their work week by four hours without boosting pay.
“Immediately following that decision, which affects both schools, I made the decision I was going to commit myself to organizing a union,” Blanche said.
After teachers organized, the non-elected governing board for Community Learning Center Schools, Inc. – the nonprofit that runs the schools – opted to remove its teacher representatives, a decision the board finalized in June, minutes show, even though a task force made up of staffers, students and parents recommended they be included, Blanche said.
Blanche said that the union is willing to compromise with management on most of the issues to be addressed by a new contract. She said they’ve reached tentative agreements on six contract articles, though some big ones – work hours, pay and class sizes – are still being discussed.
The Community Learning Center Schools website shows June 14 contract proposals from teaching and non-teaching employees on work hours, pay, staffing, class size, evaluations and safety. It also shows a June 14 “package proposal” seeking the union’s agreement to all of management’s June 4 proposals on those articles; those proposals didn’t appear to be available on the organization’s website when a reporter checked Tuesday.
Blanche said the union has been notified that management plans to ask the state’s Public Employee Relations Board to declare talks at an impasse over one key issue: Their employment status. Teachers’ old contracts only permit school managers to fire them for cause, Blanche said; but those contracts expired this year and newer teachers not covered by them were already at-will employees.
She said union members are insisting on job protections after seeing colleagues at both schools summarily fired over the years.
“At the end of last year, 100 percent of our members said, ‘Please don’t give in on this.’ Really, the most important thing on this is that we’re respected on the job,” she said.
The leader of the nonprofit that runs the two schools had little to say about the teachers’ organizing efforts and didn’t comment on management’s expected impasse request, which Blanche said the union – which is being supported by the California Teachers Association – isn’t signing on to but won’t block.
“We look forward to continuing negotiations with our Nea and ACLC facilitators and staff, confident that we will come to a productive end through this process,” said Patti Wilczek, Community Learning Center Schools, Inc.’s executive director.
If the state declares an impasse, representatives from both sides will choose a mediator to try to break it.
Separately, the union is considering filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the charter schools’ leaders over their decision to remove teachers from the governing board and what Blanche said was misinformation to families about what schools leaders are offering staffers in contract talks.
Of California’s roughly 1,100 charter schools, 180 are unionized, according to a recent article in the California Teachers Association’s monthly magazine that featured Alameda charter school teachers’ organizing efforts. It said the statewide teachers union has added a push to organize the growing number of charter schools here to its strategic plan.
While charter backers have sold the schools on their flexibility and their ability to provide unique educational programs geared toward improving student success in the classroom, unions have historically fought the schools, which weren’t unionized and didn’t offer the same protections for workers that traditional public schools do.
But as the number of charter schools has grown, the unions have reconsidered that stance. The National Education Association, for example, launched a campaign to organize charters in 2013.
About a half million of California’s 6.2 million public school students attended charters last year, California Department of Education statistics show – roughly 8 percent of the state’s students.
Alameda Unified educated about 11,000 students last year, close to 1,500 of them at four charter schools. Nea and Alameda Community Learning Center had a combined enrollment of 842 students last year, state data show.
Alameda Community Learning Center was started by the school district in the 1990s as a “school within a school” on the Encinal High School campus; it became a charter school as district leaders began cutting programs when their state funding dwindled.
School district leaders asked the school to go independent when its charter renewal came due, in 2009, Blanche said; that meant teachers there were no longer Alameda Unified School District employees and that they would no longer have the protections teachers there enjoy. (Teachers who were already at the school got a five-year contract that expired this year, she said; newer teachers weren’t covered by that contract.)
“We didn’t see it as a rebellion against the district in any way,” she said. “We saw it as continuing the work we were doing. We felt sad we couldn’t do under umbrella of AUSD.”
The loss of those protections was a daunting prospect for teachers, she said, but they believed the school’s democratic decision making model would provide them an adequate voice in their future.
Blanche said the charters’ staffers have different issues than their counterparts working for the school district, but that their independent union is leaving the door open to joining the Alameda Education Association, the local teachers’ union.
“We’ll leave open a pathway (to see) if we can find a way for our union to merge with their union,” she said.”
The charters’ new campus is at 1900 Third Street. Union and school representatives will speak after taking a tour of the schools.