Bricolage Academy teachers Brittany Scofield and Leigh Topp are elated after a successful union drive. Bricolage Academy Educators United voted to form a union May 28, 2021. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

After years of organizing at the Esplanade Avenue charter school, Bricolage Academy educators on Friday voted in favor of unionizing, announcing the majority vote with a thumbs up, hugs and elation on the school’s front steps.

The vote, which was taken under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board, will mean that the Bricolage Academy Educators United will become one of a handful of schools — including Morris Jeff Community School, Benjamin Franklin High School and International High School — with union representation in the city’s charter-based school system. 

The union will represent the school’s teachers and others classified as professional staff. But one teacher told The Lens she hopes support staff will follow their lead. 

“I feel excited and relieved, but I know this is just the first step,” Bricolage teacher Leigh Topp said through tears after hugging fellow union supporters outside of the school. “I’m looking forward to our support workers filing soon because we know we’re not a true unit until we’re together.”

The final tally — 42 in favor of unionization and 18 opposed — showed overwhelming support for the union among the school’s educators. Friday’s results came over opposition from the chair of the school’s governing board and its recently departed CEO. A social media campaign, purportedly led by a group of anti-union Bricolage staffers and parents, called Independent Bricolage NOLA also pushed against the union drive in recent weeks. 

“While we are disappointed in the outcome of today’s vote and continue to believe it is best that our valued employees maintain their independent voices through direct access to school leadership, we respect the opinions of those who prevailed,” read a statement released by board chair Yvette Jones after the vote. “Our task now is to ensure that all voices on this issue remain fully respected and that our school community moves forward together as one to make Bricolage Academy the most desirable and rewarding environment possible to educate, work and learn.”

Prior to the vote, more than 60 people gathered at Pagoda Cafe at an energetic rally to send off the teachers to vote at the school. Teachers from Ben Franklin High School and Morris Jeff Community School, two charter schools in the city with collective bargaining agreements, were there, along with other workers’ advocates, union members and some school parents.

The 7 a.m. broadcast of “We Are Family” was a bit too loud for one neighbor, but the group quickly moved to invite several speakers to address the group.

“We know teacher working conditions are student learning conditions,” Bricolage music teacher Brittany Scofield said to the crowd prior to the vote. 

The Bricolage union is affiliated with the citywide teachers union United Teachers of New Orleans. UTNO represented educators throughout the city prior to the post-Katrina takeover of New Orleans public schools by the state-run Recovery School District. UTNO President Wanda Richard, Larry Carter, president of the statewide union Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and state Rep. Royce Duplessis were present on Friday and encouraged a union vote.

“We believe all teachers — no matter where they teach — deserve to have a seat at the table in this city,” Duplessis said.

Following the rally, educators then marched from the cafe over to the school. 

After board inaction, educators turn to NLRB

Teachers have argued a union is needed to give them a voice in school administrative decisions, address pay disparities and ensure they are paid for extra work. Those arguing against the union say teachers already have the ability to speak and some have criticized the bargaining group that was set, which excludes security guards and employees in management positions.

Three months ago, BAE presented their union petition to the charter school’s board and asked for voluntary recognition. But, in an early March meeting, the board declined to take action on the request, sending the group to the National Labor Relations Board.

The federal oversight board approved that request and set today’s election, which they supervised.

The union drive grew more intense in recent weeks, as Independent Bricolage NOLA ramped up its social media campaign discouraging a union and encouraging all employees to vote in the union election and let their votes be challenged, potentially dragging out the official results.

Adding to the tension as the pandemic school year wrapped up, two weeks ago the school’s CEO,  Troave’ Profice, went on personal leave, and parents soon learned she would not return for the following school year. Earlier this week the board selected the school’s principal, Antigua Wilbern, as its interim CEO.

Both Bricolage’s board and administration have publicly discouraged organizing, in some cases using the school’s email service to email parents to express their opposition. In one email from late April sent to parents, Bricolage board chair Yvette Jones criticized the effort as unnecessary and questioned why certain employees, including support staff and supervisors, were not included in the union. And Profice told The Lens in early May that a union is “not in the best interests” of all employees or students. 

At a Tuesday meeting, board members danced around the subject and said it was now up to the teachers.

Back at the school Friday, as teachers smiled and hugged one another there was another common statement that could be heard, acknowledging the upcoming collective bargaining process.

“It’s back to work,” Richard said. 

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...