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Morris Jeff charter school board embraces new teachers union

Almost eight years since Hurricane Katrina set the stage for sweeping education reform that radically weakened New Orleans teachers unions, one charter school board has decided to embrace its faculty’s decision to organize.

The Morris Jeff Community School board of directors unanimously voted Thursday to recognize a new local teachers’ union.

Formed with the support of 94 percent of the school’s staff members, The Morris Jeff Association of Educators will be a union solely comprised of Morris Jeff Community School educators, according to terms discussed in the meeting.

Theirs is the first charter teachers group to formally organize since the Orleans Parish School Board decided not to renew a collective bargaining agreement for the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.

“We are driven by two, unwavering goals,” teacher Aaron Forbes told the board as he spoke on behalf of teachers. “Providing the highest quality education to ensure all children achieve their maximum potential and transforming the landscape for teacher organization and development in New Orleans.”

Though the association plans to receive support from the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state’s teachers unions, it will not be considered the New Orleans chapter of LAE, organizers said.

The old union of choice, the United Teachers of New Orleans, has spoken on behalf of Recovery School District teachers and OPSB teachers in the years following Katrina, but has not represented any groups formally.

More than 20 teachers, parents and community members came Thursday night to stand in solidarity of the newly formed association.

After board members voted unanimously to approve the measure, teachers in attendance broke into applause.

The announcement comes about five months after the United Teachers of New Orleans requested teachers’ contact information from several New Orleans charter schools, saying that they wanted to try to organize those schools and spread the word about their professional development programs.

The faculty organizers at Morris Jeff did speak to UTNO about their plans, but decided that a relationship with LAE was a better fit, fourth grade teacher Rowan Shafer said.

“I have been a member of UTNO,” Shafer said. “But what we found was that LAE was more supportive of what we were willing to do.”

The association will be considered the Morris Jeff branch of LAE, said LAE UniServ director Grant Shreiner. Shreiner called the partnership a “totally new” structure.

“They are being treated like they are their own school district,” he said. “So if another charter school wants to do something, they’ll be a separate one.” A separate charter school union could be designed differently, depending on the school and the teachers’ goals, he said.

Although Shafer and the other teachers haven’t finalized all of their plans – such as whether they’ll actually craft an agreement that they’ll expect the board to uphold, and what that agreement will entail – they’ll be meeting with the board’s governance committee to flesh that out in the coming months.

The impetus for the union may surprise some. Second grade teacher Courtney Wilde said that this group was not birthed by unhappy teachers looking for change.

“We like our jobs,” she said.

Rather, she said, the union is a way for teachers to identify common classroom problems and work cooperatively towards solutions, to boost student achievement. Having a system that everyone has bought into and where everyone feels they can be heard is key to Morris Jeff’s sustainability, she said.

School leaders said they see the site-based, student-focused union as a model for other charter teachers looking to organize.

“I am very excited about this development,” board president Aesha Rasheed said. “We are brave.”

With 360 students and about 34 teachers today, Morris Jeff opened in the fall of 2010 with a distinct premise and mission, founding president Broderick Bagert said. The idea was that kids of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds can and should be able to attend school together, and that their parents, teachers, and the community would have a huge say in the process.

Bagert said Thursday that he hopes the creation of a union reveals once more that Morris Jeff is a trailblazer.

“One of the most striking prejudices in the ed reform movement right now is with teachers unions,” he said. While unions may have gotten a bad rep in the past, the Morris Jeff’s group’s mission is clearly different from that of the old model, he said.

Still, some school leaders expressed concerns.

“The perception of ‘union’ comes to mind, and what we don’t want is to have a negative association with a union, per se,” said board vice president Wanda Anderson-Guillaume.

She said that there may be ways for teachers to collaborate in Morris Jeff’s existing professional affiliations, such as the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools.

Though Principal Patricia Perkins was supportive, she cautioned against an affiliation with an outside organization.

“I feel that the teachers need to drive this and not let some outside agenda come in and take precedence,”  she said.

For decades before Katrina and New Orleans’ explosive charter school reform, the city’s teachers unions were polarizing forces that critics believe stifled schools’ autonomy and left principals helpless to rid their campuses of bad teachers.

Barbara MacPhee, the former principal of the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, said she remembers it well. She said the new development at Morris Jeff “is very interesting” and that she looks forward to seeing how it shakes out.

“All I want in an organization … is that we stop this adversarial hostile relationship that so characterized the former union, and that there be equal representation for the concerns of the students as well as of the teachers,” she said.

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  • Gus

    I think this is very good news. Get teachers involved in the process of solving whatever problems may exist at a school. Teachers know students better than anyone at a school, and it seems obvious that teachers should play a significant role in making decisions that affect their students. Kudos to everyone involved in this big event.

  • http://twitter.com/AhContraire AhContraire

    This is a bad sign. The Union says at first, “this and that”, we have changed, and it’s only to be better teachers. But once salaries are not raised enough, or salaries remain the same, or some teacher gets fired, or there is a new policy, you can bet the UNION will only look out for their interest in the form of money.

    Can anyone point to any teachers’ union in America that has done any good for the students in the last 40 years?

  • Gus

    Are you saying that unions are always bad? Is it wrong for a group of dedicated teachers to organize in an effort to have more of a voice in their school? That actually sounds like a really good idea to me. The teachers say that they like their jobs and want their union to be a model for how things can work if teachers, administrators, and boards work together. Don’t you agree that things would work best if those three worked together to solve problems? Can’t we give these teachers a chance before we condemn them for doing things that they haven’t done and say that they don’t want to do? Just think how exciting it will be if this group of pioneers actually does provide a successful model for others to follow. It’s easy to be cynical about just about everything in life, but I’m rooting for the teachers and hope that whatever it is that they want to do will benefit their students.

  • nickelndime

    Well, it’s a good thing for that Morris Jeff Board that they voted unanimously to “recognize” the Morris Jeff Association of Educators. LOL and rolling on the floor. Now, how much are the dues and how will they be paid? automatic deducations and recurring…
    Oh yeah – is it an “open” or “closed” union? Does the school charter address the union issue? Who is the building rep (is there a building rep)? Does the operating agreement between the RSD and the charter school address the formation of a union at the site? What about the teachers who do not wish to belong to the school-based union? Are there any collective bargaining rights? Is there a written agreement (if so, what does it look like in print)? Or did the board just vote to say, “You exist!” Omgawd – where are the students? We are so-o-o-o busy with all of this! Aesha and Brod don’t have a clue about any of this, but Wanda and Patricia do. Ha! And for the record, not all unions or professional organizations for teachers are bad, but UTNO was and is (bad)!

  • http://twitter.com/AhContraire AhContraire

    Can anyone list a UNION for teachers in Louisiana that was good for the state in the last 40 years?

  • nickelndime

    Let’s define teacher “unions.” I consider the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) more of a professional (not labor only) organization than UTNO or the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT). IMHO, UTNO and LFT have done more harm to teachers than good. Labor unions make the education profession look bad and leave a bad taste in the public’s mouth. I think the Morris Jeff group was wise to disassociate itself with UTNO. At this time, I do not have a formed opinion about the value of what the Morris Jeff group of teachers has done professionally and what value (if any) it will be to them in the long run. What they have done may be useless. The board may have allowed them to spin their wheels (placate them at the end of the year).

  • Gus

    Nickelndime – I also read the Advocate article on this event. That article says that the teachers reached out to LAE, and that LAE was not the party that made the initial contact. For whatever reason, the teachers wanted to be part of a larger organization. I doubt that they want to be a part of LAE just so they can pay union dues. Should LAE have turned the teachers away, and not offered to help?

    Louisiana is a right to work state, and employees can’t be forced to join a union or prevented from joining a union. It wouldn’t be legal for a charter to include anything about preventing teachers from forming a union.

    I say give the teachers a chance, and let’s judge them on their actions, and not whatever abuses may have been committed by someone else many years ago.

  • nickelndime

    I don’t have a beef with the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE). It is a professional organization for educators and does not appear to reflect a labor-union mentality. For the record, I am opposed to the following: (1) UTNO; (2) the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS) and Caroline Roemer Shirley, and; (3) the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools (Riedlinger & Riedlinger). As far as the Morris Jeff teachers, I say, “Have at it, hoss.” Teachers in Louisiana, particularly in Greater New Orleans are in trouble. Post-Katrina, they lost tenure and their job security. When ” da charters” (Types 1-2-3-4-5) talk about cutting costs, it is always in teacher pensions (TRSL) and classroom positions, not administrative costs. Teachers are “at-will” employees. They can disappear at the drop of a hat. For all I know, Rowan and Courtney could disappear over the summer, and the teachers who still have their jobs won’t even remember who they are.

  • nickelndime

    Hey Gus, I am with you, not against what you are saying. Teachers have rights (most nonprofit boards and their attorneys operate in contrast to this opinion, however). For the record, some charter (documents) specifically state that teachers are free to join any union of their choice, but it also says that the charter “board” will not negotiate with said union. IOW, neither the teachers (nor the union they join) have any collective bargaining rights. My question is, how much meat is in what the Morris Jeff teachers have done? Sure, teachers may choose to join a union (and pay union dues), but will it have any effect (rehiring, pay, duty, etc.)? Effectively, I guess that is like “Taxation without representation.”

  • Gus

    You’re very knowledgeable about education issues. Do you have a blog or anything like that? Here’s a suggestion – and I’m serious about it – why don’t you reach out to the Morris Jeff teachers, and see if you can help them in any way? Let’s face it, they’re pretty much on their own, and I suspect that powerful forces are going to try to minimize their influence and power at their school. I think teachers are generally being mistreated at charter schools, and I’d love to see the teachers have a real voice and see positive changes in their school once the teachers become part of the decision-making process. I know this is the idealist in me writing, but I want to see the new union succeed. If everything I’ve read is true, it’s a great story about some idealistic workers, who want to be more involved and help their school and students succeed. I’m all for that. Like you (I think), I believe that most charter school operators are in over their heads, and that the charter school movement seems to be more about breaking unions, privatizing schools, and giving public money to private entities that support the governor’s conservative agenda. Rarely does it seem to be about the students.

  • http://twitter.com/bbeabout bbeabout

    Indeed much remains to be done before we pass judgement on the
    success or failure of this fledgling effort at Morris Jeff. Certainly,
    the demonization of teachers is perhaps the greatest flaw of the current
    reform orthodoxy, and if a board and a staff can help deflate that
    myth, I’m all for it. I was an UTNO member, and can’t say that their
    presence helped our kids (or me as a teacher, as a matter of fact). I
    give the teachers and board the benefit of the doubt that they seek to
    create a third-way here. They should be supported for not simply getting
    in line with the rest.

    As a parent at Morris Jeff, I feel
    obligated to point out that your broad statements about charter schools
    are somewhat inapplicable here. Last I checked, Morris Jeff had ZERO
    6-figure employees, The administration is rather thin, with 1 dean, 1
    curriculum coordinator, 1 principal, and one office staff.

    The
    2013-14 budget for the school is here:
    http://thelensnola.org/2013/05/13/morris-jeffs-3-9-million-budget-anticipates-growth-of-75-students/

    The
    schools administrative salaries make up 5.9% of the total budget ($200K
    out of $3.4 million). The board includes parents, current and retired
    educators, and NOPS graduates. Many of them spent the weekend with me
    selling refreshments at Bayou Boogaloo to raise funds for our IB
    curriculum training for teachers. I’m sure you’re right though, they
    probably just were there for an opportunity to raid our tip jar.

  • Soren Acat

    You are incorrect. Charter teachers do have a right to join a union, they do have a right to collectively bargain and the national labor relations board has an obligation under the law to force the charter school board to bargain in good faith. Charter school teachers are private sector employees, unlike their traditional public school counterparts. This gives them rights under the National Labor relations Act which traditional teachers do not have since they are public sector employees. By falling under NLRB jurisdiction, they can petition for a vote for union recognition, and once recognized, the charter school board MUST collectively bargain with them as outlined by the National Labor Relations Act. So in LA at least, charter school teachers have more rights to collective bargaining than traditional public school teahers because of the way that charter schools are governed.

  • Soren Acat

    UTNO

  • nickelndime

    For the record, I did not say that charter school teachers cannot join a union. Some charter documents address this issue specifically, but most do not. As far as public school teachers, (charter and otherwise), maybe somebody ought to get on over to Morris Jeff and let them know what their labor rights are. Then maybe the same expert can get on over to Jefferson Parish, as an aside, since the school board rejected the collective bargaining agreement last night. I stand by any and all broad statements that I have specifically made regarding charter school administrative positions, i.e., that salaries and numbers are out of control. If Morris Jeff has 1 CEO and 1 dean (anticipated), then I consider that highly unusual.

  • http://twitter.com/AhContraire AhContraire

    And what do they, UTNO, have to show for their union?

    Ultimately, have the students this union, UTNO, has taught made New Orleans a better place?

  • nickelndime

    Why would anyone from TFA (Teach For America) join UTNO?!? Just asking.

  • Lee Barrios

    Congrats to Morris Jeff Teachers. I have the highest respect for LAE, it’s Exec. Director Dr. Michael Walkeer-Jones, and its leadership structure which believes that teachers lead. .

  • Lee Barrios

    The entire Morris Jeff community will benefit from association and support if LAE. It is a teacher driven union in Louisiana due to its excellent leaders.