Charter schools' union gaining national attention

Charter schools' union gaining national attention

Michele Ellson
Community Learning Center Schools

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.


Submitted by Richard Hausman (not verified) on Wed, Aug 20, 2014

Considering the recent court decision that eliminated teacher tenure, there is simply no reason for not having an at-will clause should there be, in fact, a contract. While I am opposed to charter schools in general because they encourage segregation, one of the underlying concepts of such schools is that underperforming teachers could be fired without having to go through the lengthy (2 years) and costly ($200k) process public schools face.

Submitted by Richard Hausman (not verified) on Wed, Aug 20, 2014

And here's more news about charter schools gaining national attention -- from the FBI!

Submitted by David (not verified) on Fri, Aug 22, 2014

The unionization of teachers at Alameda's charter schools may contribute to their own demise. (Maybe that's desired by some senior union officials?)

The promise of a charter is teachers, administrators, parents and students all standing shoulder to shoulder for a common cause. Now, in the charters, teachers and administrators sit across from each other.

When the charter looks, acts and quacks no different from the non-charter public schools, people will see no need for it.

Submitted by Mark (not verified) on Sat, Aug 23, 2014

exactly. There should be no need for charters because all public schools should have a high rate of efficacy and the lack of that is much more complex than unions or tenure. The Blame Bad Teachers movement is the front of privatization movement. Teachers, administrators, kids and parents can't all stand together because somebody waves the magic charter wand. A work place is a work place. The only clear answer I've gotten from parents about why they favor NEA was "dedicated teachers", but some very well liked educators have been let go "at will".

Submitted by Daniel (not verified) on Mon, Aug 25, 2014

The teacher salaries at charters often do *not* correspond with those in unionized District schools. Teachers at charters often are offered more $$$ in lieue of being able to join a union. If such is the case here, it seems like the teachers are trying to "have their cake and eat it too".

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Aug 25, 2014

Hey Daniel: Thanks for your note. Do you have some data on that? I'd be interested to see the comparison.

Submitted by Marvin Gentz (not verified) on Mon, Aug 25, 2014

This is really great news. Somebody here should have documented the percentage of teachers who are leaving charter schools and signing up with unionized public schools. Charter school teachers are just now learning that they have been cheated out of job security and a whole host of benefits which are available in a union school. In addition, we know that students achieve significantly higher in union schools than in chintzy private schools. Let the movement multiply.