Morris Jeff Community School’s teachers’ union and the Mid-City charter school’s board agreed to a second collective bargaining agreement late last month, after what both sides said were smooth negotiations. 

The three-year deal increases the teachers’ voice while not overstepping the administration’s ability to work efficiently, the school’s board president Blaine LeCesne said in an interview with The Lens. 

The agreement includes pay raises, including for early childhood education teachers who were not included in last year’s statewide teacher pay increase

Teachers were particularly proud of a retooled student support committee, now called the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, that they say will allow the union to address a wider variety of issues with administration. 

“It was a highly collaborative process with little or no involvement from lawyers. Both sides just basically sat down and discussed, you know, what would be in the best interest of the school what would produce the best educational outcome,” LeCesne said. 

“When you start from that kind of premise where there’s mutual trust between the parties on both sides and you have a common objective, it’s likely to yield a good result,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened here.”

Fifth grade teacher Matthew Tuttle, who serves as the president of the Morris Jeff United Educators, which is a chapter of United Teachers of New Orleans, said he agreed. 

“It started with each side being really upfront about the things they wanted or what they needed to change,” he said in an interview this week. “The approach wasn’t, ‘I’ll trade you this for this.’ It was, ‘How can we work together to make these things happen?’ ”

Third grade teacher Michaela Gibboni was one of several teachers who participated in the bargaining process. She said she wanted to learn more about the behind the scenes work and hoped to increase transparency and accountability for both teachers and administrators. 

“For me, when I chose to come work at this school, having a union was a really really big part of that decision,” said Gibboni, whose taught at the Mid-City school for four years. 

Both she and Tuttle were pleased with the expansion of the student support committee. 

“By broadening it to a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, we’re able to broaden the people who can participate and the types of issues we can address,” Gibboni said. 

This is the second successful contract for the Morris Jeff United Educators. The group was the second union in the city to get a contract with its school’s nonprofit governing board. The first, Benjamin Franklin High School, had the first union contract since Hurricane Katrina forced the Orleans Parish School Board to lay off 7,600 public school employees in the months after the storm. 

Benjamin Franklin High School voluntarily recognized the union and its teachers, with UTNO’s representation, successfully negotiated a contract in 2015. The union signed a new contract in September 2017 that runs until June 2021, according to a school spokeswoman.

Other unionization attempts since the storm, at Lusher Charter School and International High School of New Orleans, have failed or stalled. 

Teachers and aides at International High School voted to have the union represent them but the charter’s board has fought it. At Lusher, teachers voted against unionization, but a smaller group of employees, mostly made up of teachers’ aides, voted in favor. That group never successfully negotiated a contract.

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 of 2017, the National Labor Relations Board rejected that reasoning, ruling the schools are subject to federal labor law. An appeals court upheld that decision in the fall of 2018.

Staff at Mary D. Coghill Charter School were working to unionize in 2017, and in May of that year they voted to unionize. The group secured a collective bargaining agreement, but the charter school, recently rated an F, will close at the end of this school year. The board still discusses collective bargaining behind closed doors each month. 

Teachers at Morris Jeff say the union elevates staff voices and input on school policy and administration. 

“I think Morris Jeff is a better and stronger school because of that relationship,” LeCesne said. 

LeCesne was on Lusher’s board during months of contentious meetings, including a lawyer who dropped the board as his client because he said the school’s administration was interfering with the process. He offered a brief comment on that process. 

“I don’t want to revisit the past. All I can say is the dynamic is different for each school,” LeCesne. “The success or failure of any unionization effort is going to be dependent on large part in the personalities.”

He then turned again to highlight Morris Jeff. “All I can say is we have great people on both sides of the equation who were operating in good faith for a common goal. And that goal is to produce the best education product we could for the children attending that school.”

Morris Jeff CEO Patricia Perkins also said the process went well and centered around students. 

“I am proud of our process and see it as a beacon shedding light on how a teachers’ union and a school can truly work side by side for the good of all stakeholders,” Perkins said in a statement released by the union. 

The statement highlighted pay raises.

“The agreement also solidifies pay increases for early childhood educators who were not included in the 2019 state-wide pay raise as well as all teachers and staff with an additional bump for paraeducators. With regards to pay, the agreement prioritizes the importance of teacher certification, which is not a requirement for charter schools in Louisiana.”

LeCesne said as long as both sides are working together in good faith, “it shows you that there is room for cooperation and a collaborative working relationship between administration and staff.”

“It doesn’t have to be, it should not be, and was never meant to be an adversarial relationship,” he said. “Only one thing that matters at the end of the day is education.” 

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...