Teachers sporting “proud to be charter and union” buttons filled almost every seat in Morris Jeff Community School’s library on Tuesday in anticipation of the New Orleans campus’ board of directors vote to recognize their union.
The room buzzed with excitement, and the audience was rewarded with a unanimous board acknowledgement of the union, putting the five-year old charter school onto a barely blazed trail.
Like most urban districts, teachers in the New Orleans Public Schools for decades worked under union-negotiated contracts. But after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with devastated infrastructure and too few students, the school year was effectively cancelled and the city’s teachers were eventually laid off.
That set off a sweeping wrongful termination lawsuit on behalf of nearly 7,000 teachers that was dismissed by the Louisiana Supreme Court in October but still has a slight chance before the U.S. Supreme Court. With the state takeover of a majority of the district’s schools, and the eventual chartering of all but five city schools, collective bargaining essentially disappeared.
The move by the Morris Jeff board to establish a contract with the union is the second action by a city charter school in the past month that indicates teachers — and school operators — may be willing to give unions a role in education.
Broadly speaking, charters were envisioned as a way to free educators from following tightly scripted tradition and common practice in education, and that includes running a campus without unions. Still, unions are popping up at charter schools nationwide, though it’s by no means a swelling trend.
The American Federation of Teachers, one of the country’s two major teachers unions, said it has collective bargaining contracts with 213 charter schools. The National Education Association didn’t immediately respond to a request for precisely how many charters it’s involved with, but has indicated in previous reports that it represents hundreds more.
Three weeks ago, the United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT’s local affiliate, secured its first collective-bargaining contract of the past decade, at Benjamin Franklin High School.
“It is the first and only charter school in the state to have collective bargaining,” UTNO President Larry Carter said.
Franklin’s board unanimously approved the 25-page agreement. The highly rated charter high school, located on the University of New Orleans campus, requires students to test in and is overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board.
Now the Morris Jeff teachers are right behind them, and seeking their guidance.
Third-grade teacher Rowan Shafer said she and her colleagues have talked with Benjamin Franklin staff.
“Mostly, we’re really looking forward to having open dialogue,” Shafer said.
Shafer was part of the group that first organized at Morris Jeff. The charter school actually was the first in the city to recognize a teacher’s association. That happened two years ago when the board recognized the Morris Jeff Association of Educators, but that group never negotiated a contract with the board.
Tuesday’s vote recognized that a majority of teachers petitioned to move to a new group, supported by the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). UTNO is the longstanding union that used to represent teachers before Katrina.
UTNO and its national affiliate also helped organize and secure Franklin’s contract.
AFT National Representative Audra George was present at the Morris Jeff meeting. She also worked on the Franklin contract. She declined to comment on the action by the two schools, but said she would be in a position to say more in the coming weeks.
A new era for unions
The union has not had a collective bargaining agreement in the city since the Recovery School District seized most city schools from the School Board. UTNO quietly maintained its office on Paris Avenue and some provided some professional development to local teachers. It also has union-represented teachers in some schools and sends representatives to some charter school board meetings. Though the Orleans Parish School Board still directly runs five schools, the union doesn’t have a collective-bargaining agreement with the board.
“We then tried our very best to see how, in this new landscape that’s in front of us, how teachers’ voice could be amplified and part of the dialogue,” Carter, the local’s president, said.
Contracts negotiated with charter schools can be better tailored to individual schools, Carter said, as opposed to district-wide contracts trying to encapsulate scores of schools into one agreement.
“It creates more of an individual school-based collective-bargaining agreement,” he said.
Louisiana is a right-to-work state, which means workers in unionized workplaces cannot be compelled to join or pay dues, even if they benefit from collective-bargaining agreements.
But tailor-made contracts for specific charters also means the financial burden of negotiation falls solely on the school.
Franklin’s contract came after eight months of negotiations. And the cost of that process concerns some of Morris Jeff’s board members.
“We’re undertaking a process that is not only going to be time-intensive but is going to cost money,” board member Amanda Butler said before the vote.
She urged quick work to make the best use of both of those resources. At a previous meeting, Butler said the cost of negotiating Franklin’s contract was $150,000, according to a Mid-City Messenger article. The Morris Jeff board hired an attorney to represent it in negotiations at its March meeting.
Shafer hopes Morris Jeff’s contract can serve as “a model beyond just our school.”
And board members seem ready to listen.
“I think democracy is a wonderful thing but consensus is much better,” board member Irvin Bell said as he introduced the topic on Tuesday.
He said he hoped all would be heard in the upcoming bargaining process, rather than the loudest or strongest voices.
After Bell introduced a motion to recognize the union, the board took public comment and Shafer stood in front of room.
“We are really proud to be here,” she said, then underscored who she meant by “we.”
She first asked parents who supported the union to stand up. Then community members. And finally staff members. At that point, only a few of the 25 people in the room remained seated.
Parent Brooke Muntean also spoke in support.
“Just like this is a city of choice for parents…it is for teachers too,” Muntean said.
Muntean works in higher education but said should she return to the classroom, she would apply at Benjamin Franklin or Morris Jeff, which is “not a coincidence.”
After the Morris Jeff board unanimously raised seven thumbs up, literally — that’s the board’s signal for a yea vote — the room broke into applause and Bell asked for a short recess and shook hands with almost everyone in the room.
“I do think this is a really historical and exciting moment for everybody,” Shafer said after the meeting.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.