Charter Schools

Continuing fight against unionization, Lusher files appeal with labor board

Despite taking no public action after privately receiving legal advice Saturday, Lusher Charter School has filed a challenge to the National Labor Relations Board’s authority to hold a union election.

The board chairman, who is in the board minority that wanted to voluntarily recognize the union, said in an interview that the CEO of the school decided to file the challenge without formal board approval.

In the election last week, Lusher teachers voted 77 to 54 against union representation. However, a much smaller group of paraprofessionals at the school voted 8 to 5 in favor of a union; three additional paraprofessional votes were challenged and not yet counted.

That means the paraprofessionals could seek from the board a collective bargaining contract, negotiated by United Teachers of New Orleans. Board members at Saturday’s meeting weighed the cost of continuing to challenge jurisdiction against the cost of negotiating a contract.

Ballpark figures used at Saturday’s meeting put a challenge at $100,000, and negotiating at $150,000. The latter is the figure Benjamin Franklin Charter School arrived at after negotiating a union contract with its teachers. One Lusher board member, though, pointed out they could face both costs if their challenge is not successful.

Lusher attorney Mag Bickford filed a 24-page request for review with the federal labor board Tuesday. She did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.

Board Chairman Blaine LeCesne and board member Chunlin Leonhard, who also supported the union effort in a 6-5 vote, found themselves pitted against the rest of the board members on a variety of issues at Saturday’s meeting. He said he believes the majority of the board clearly agrees with the move to challenge the labor board, though it took no vote on the matter.

“This is in indication of just how unfettered the CEO’s authority is,” he said, referring to longtime school leader Kathy Riedlinger. “The board acquiesced to the CEO demanding that we take that legal position.

“It’s the tail wagging the dog.”

Bickford and two colleagues met in a closed-door executive session with the Lusher board Saturday to offer legal advice on the unionization effort.

The matter turns on whether Lusher is a governmental body, over which the labor board has no jurisdiction. A regional hearing officer of the board ruled that Lusher was not a governmental body and ordered the union election to be held.

Lusher’s argument in the labor board filing relies heavily on the state law that authorized the creation of charter schools and the fact that a majority of the city’s schools are charters.

The brief notes Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s executive order that allowed the Orleans Parish School Board to quickly grant charters after Hurricane Katrina. Advocates for Arts Based Education, the nonprofit that runs Lusher, filed its incorporation papers before Katrina. It was granted a charter by the School Board two weeks after the storm.

Lusher Charter ties its history to the traditional public Robert M. Lusher that opened in Orleans Parish in 1913. When Advocates received a charter, it converted the traditional school into a public charter school.

Lusher contends it is a public school throughout the filing and that it is generally accepted that Lusher is a public school. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a political subdivision.

In fact, in a past lawsuit, Lusher successfully argued it was not a political subdivision and therefore had the ability to sue the Orleans Parish School Board over certain fees. In its brief, though, Lusher said that previous federal court ruling shouldn’t play into this decision because it was a different point of law.

Should Advocates lose its charter contract, the organization would still exist, as New Orleans has seen in other instances where charter schools have been shut down.

Lusher also argues it is a joint employer with the School Board in some cases, such as the hiring of special-education faculty.

The story was updated to include comments from Lusher’s board chairman.

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