Bricolage Academy occupies John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Bricolage Academy’s governing board on Wednesday discussed the latest New Orleans charter school union drive — from Bricolage Academy Educators United — in private for over an hour with its attorneys in its first public meeting since receiving the union petition.

Board president Yvette Jones said the board must continue to do its “due diligence” over the matter before taking a vote on whether to recognize the union. On February 24, Bricolage Academy Educators United delivered a letter to school management and the charter’s non-profit board of directors. Wednesday night was the first time it was publicly addressed. 

The New Orleans teachers union — which once represented teachers across the school district — 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 as it faced a funding shortage.

Teachers unions have made a small comeback in the city over the last eight years, with Bricolage educators becoming the sixth school to attempt a union drive. But the vast majority of educators in the city are employed without union representation, under year-to-year contracts with individual charter school groups. 

Prior to the closed session on the union, Bricolage CEO Troave’ Profice gave a report on staffing, saying that 90 percent of school staff wanted to return next school year. The school will be offering multi-year employment contracts, she said. 

“I’m proud to share publicly … all returning team members can expect to receive a three year work agreement,” Profice said. “That’s different than the typical one-year agreement in the past.”

However, she added that those agreements would depend on performance and funding.

More than 110 people tuned in to Wednesday’s virtual meeting, including more than a dozen self-identified BAE members and more than two dozen self-identified “friends of BAE.” Several Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools staff and Bricolage founder Josh Densen were present as well. Densen also has a child attending the school.

“Honestly the petition came as a surprise to the board and leadership and since that time we’ve been trying to understand what it means for the school as a whole and what it means for our students and families,” Jones said as she began to address the petition. “As the board, we have to do our due diligence with this legal matter and really this is the first time we’ve been able to come together to discuss.”

Jones praised the school’s teachers. “But we also are stewards for public assets that are entrusted to us as the governing body of a charter school. We must move deliberately and carefully when confronted with a complex issue like this.”

The charter board then allowed several minutes of comment from staff members in favor of the union petition and those opposed. No comments from the general public were taken on the matter. Since the board was not taking a vote, public comment was not legally required. 

Teacher Emily Alverson was the first to speak in favor of the petition, noting how when she moved to New York to work on her master’s degree, she worked at a unionized school and thought it was a better working environment. Before moving, she worked at Bricolage. She returned to the school after finishing her master’s. 

“I would come in at 7:30 and stay until 6:30 and then I’d come in on Sundays too,” Alverson said recalling her first year at Bricolage in 2014, prior to moving to New York.. “I thought that was just how it was supposed to work. Teachers were just supposed to work themselves to death.”

“I left and moved to New York to get my master’s and I got to be part of union schools and what I saw was teachers who did not work themselves to death. They worked in an environment where they expected their time and expertise to be respected. Working in union schools taught me to expect to have my time and expertise to be respected,” she said.

“There are people in this building right now without lunch breaks, [special education] teachers fundamentally unable to do their jobs because they are teaching all day,” she said. “Pay disparities seen across race and gender lines and huge disparities between associate teachers pay and the work they are asked to do. I love working here but there are still a lot of problems.”

Bricolage “has a great resource it’s not even using — the voice of its staff. Our voice may be valued but it isn’t recognized in a formal official way,” she said.

Teacher Brittany Scofield echoed her comments. 

“It isn’t complicated. There’s no ‘gotcha.’ The union is not a third-party. The union is workers coming together asking for regular good-faith meetings and collaboration with leadership,” Scofied said. “Our leaders are always willing to hear us out but there is an innate power imbalance in our current structure. The only way to empower the voices of teachers and support staff is through collective bargaining.”

“If I were a board member, I would want to be a part of this movement,” she said. 

Brandi-Rose Michael, who works as an interventionist at Bricolage, spoke against unionization. 

“I am not here to negate any of the statements my colleagues just made,” she said. “However, when this conversation really started to take off there were a number of employees here who were left out of the conversation — intentionally it seems.”

She said some employees who signed the union petition were misled. She said some of the same employees signed a petition she started, advocating for an “independent,” union-free Bricolage.

“I’m here to say we don’t know enough about this and we just need to know what’s happening,” she said. “We need more time to discuss what this truly means for our organization. We shouldn’t accept a petition that isn’t validated and verified. You’ll find that some of the signatures on their petitions are the same as the signatures on my petition.”

Following those comments, the board moved into an executive session for discussion. The closed door session lasted just over an hour. 

Upon returning, board members voted to adjourn the meeting without taking any votes. 

Board members did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Lens asking which attorneys had been retained for the discussion and who was present in the closed door meeting.

Unions in the charter era

Bricolage is the sixth school to attempt to unionize in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

In 2013 Morris Jeff Community School’s governing board voluntarily recognized the school’s first union. A year later, educators at Benjamin Franklin High School unionized and the charter school’s board also voluntarily recognized the group. They each have renewed collective bargaining agreements to date.

Later union drives didn’t go as smoothly. Lusher Charter School’s board voted narrowly against recognizing the union while International High School’s board did not consider the item.

That sent the unions to the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees. There, Lusher officials argued the school wasn’t subject to federal oversight of the board. In February 2017, the NLRB ruled that the two charter schools were subject to federal law on unionization

Both charter boards challenged rulings by the regional labor board director that they are subject to the labor board’s jurisdiction. They argued they are exempt because they are governmental entities. Eventually elections were held at each school. 

At IHS, teachers and aides voted in favor of union representation. At Lusher, teachers voted it down, but a smaller group of employees mostly made up of teachers’ aides voted for union representation. But having a union doesn’t guarantee the board will work with one to finalize a union contract. At International High School that process has dragged on without a contract for years. 

In 2017, teachers at Mary D. Coghill Charter School employees voted to unionize. But the charter group lost its charter at the end of the 2018-2019 school year and the NOLA Public Schools district took over. It is now the only traditional, direct-run school in the district. 

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...