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Charter board delays action on Coghill teachers’ request for union recognition

Teachers at Mary D. Coghill Charter School will have to wait at least two more weeks to learn if the board that oversees the school will voluntarily recognize their union.

Coghill teachers announced they had formed a union in March. Tuesday night, after hearing public comments and meeting behind closed doors for an hour, the board voted unanimously to delay a decision until it gathers more information.

Teachers cited unstable leadership and poor communication as two reasons for seeking union recognition.

“We also want to provide stability for our students,” said Alorea Gilyot, an intervention coordinator.* “Especially since we’re on our fourth principal since June of 2016.”

A board member questioned her math. “Two principals and two interims,” responded someone in the audience.* Board members murmured in agreement.

The board fired principal Chris Smith on April 6, a few weeks after he submitted charter applications that appeared to have been copied from another group’s application from a prior year. The board then pulled the charter applications.

A clause in Smith’s contract calls for 30 days notice before it is severed, so he’s on paid suspension, said board attorney Michelle Craig.

The C-rated school serves 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It’s the only school overseen by Better Choice Foundation, which recently transferred its charter contract from the Recovery School District to Orleans Parish School Board.

Tuesday night, the school library was packed with staff wearing wearing “United Teachers of Coghill” T-shirts. A dozen people, including Coghill teachers and parents, as well as teachers from other unionized schools, asked the board to recognize the union.

Teachers said the union petition has 95 percent support of the teaching staff.

“Can you please give us the tools to help strengthen the foundation that we’ve already started by recognizing the teachers as a union?” asked second-grade teacher Natalie Journee.

However, a handful of speakers cautioned the board.

Sarah Vandergriff, policy director for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said her group does not take a stance on unions, but she cautioned the room on how much a union effort can cost a school.

At the four schools that have dealt with union drives in the past couple of years, each has  “spent over $100,000 on this issue,” she said.

The local teachers’ union was all but destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. The Orleans Parish School Board laid off 7,600 public school employees in the months after the storm.

Then the state took over most of the schools and chartered them to dozens of nonprofits led by volunteer boards. For several years, none of those teachers had collective bargaining agreements; instead they worked on annual contracts.

Most still do. But United Teachers of New Orleans, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, now has four chapters at charter schools in the city.

Charter boards have responded to union drives differently.

The boards that run Morris Jeff Community School and Benjamin Franklin High School voluntarily recognized, negotiated and signed agreements with their teachers’ unions. Franklin’s negotiations took less than a year; Morris Jeff went through two unions in three years to reach a deal.

Lusher Charter School and International High School of New Orleans, on the other hand, didn’t recognize their unions. So the employees held elections.

Teachers and aides at International High School voted to have the union represent them. At Lusher, teachers voted against unionization, but a smaller group of employees, mostly made up of teachers’ aides, voted in favor.

Lusher and International High School have fought the union by arguing they are government bodies and therefore legally exempt from the labor board’s jurisdiction. In February, the National Labor Relations Board rejected that reasoning, ruling the schools are subject to federal labor law.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Coghill’s board voted to go into executive session. There is an exemption in public meetings law for strategy sessions regarding collective bargaining. However, in this case, the board has not yet recognized a union to bargain with.

Craig said deciding whether to recognize the union is part of the strategy.

The board invited Adams and Reese attorney Brooke Duncan, who represents International High School in its fight against the union, into the meeting.

Duncan had not yet been retained by Coghill’s board.

The board will meet May 9 to discuss the union drive.

*Correction: This story originally misattributed a statement to Alorea Gilyot and incorrectly stated her job title. The errors have been corrected. (April 27, 2017)

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