On Monday night, union teachers raised their arms high into the air as they walked out of Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, the French-curriculum charter school. 

The big union vote was victorious. A solid 81% of teachers and staff voted in favor of the union. Of the 64 teachers and staff who voted, 52 pulled the lever in favor of the union while 12 opposed it.

Those who voted yes represent more than one-third of the school’s total employees. In Louisiana, union membership is voluntary: those who do not want to join the union are not automatically enrolled. 

For months, union organizers have pushed forward at Lycée, despite repeated administrative animosity toward the union’s formation – which may have peaked on Friday, when a round of teachers, some of them prominent union members, received non-renewal notices to their year-to-year contracts, losing their jobs for next year. 

Though it’s too early to tell how many non-renewals were tied to the union drive, the perceived unfairness gave Monday’s win poignancy. 

Lycée Français teachers gather for a group vote after a victorious union vote on May 13, 2024. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

“I feel very emotional,” said pre-kindergarten teacher Sam Fick, as he walked from the school once victory was declared Monday. Fick’s focus was finishing out the school year strong in his classroom. Next steps in organizing would follow, during the summer, he said. 

At Lycée, like most Orleans Parish charter schools, most employees work on year-to-year contracts that can be renewed or non-renewed without explanation. Among those who lost their jobs, a handful of them – five teachers – were “non-renewed based on performance,” according to a statement by CEO Chase McLaurin, who refused to answer questions about the number of teachers from this year who were retained.

Yet Lycée non-renewed more than five teachers, multiple sources confirmed to The Lens. Other teachers – though McLaurin refused to give numbers – were plucked from classrooms where they were certified and instead offered jobs in subjects or grades they aren’t certified to teach. Teachers speculated that this was window-dressing that allowed the school to assert that those teachers were offered jobs. 

Lycée’s public relations firm said the school would issue a statement Tuesday morning. 

Monday’s vote was not affected by the layoffs. Teachers who did not receive an offer for next year were still eligible to vote, because their contracts are active through the end of the school year. 

Though her children no longer attend Lycée Français, parent Rachel Bartkowiak felt compelled to come out and support teachers on election day. She brought her children. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

On Monday evening, Rachel Bartkowiak, wearing a “OUI” sticker on her red jumper, stood outside the school’s Leonidas campus alongside her husband, their two kids aflutter with union stickers and ready words of support. “I hope they vote for the union!” 11-year-old Sullivan said, before running to swing across nearby bike racks, as if they were monkey bars.

More than a year ago, after watching the school’s administration fail to address teachers’ concerns and stand behind the controversial firing of civics teacher Jinger Whiddon, the Bartkowiaks transferred their children from Lycée to Audubon Charter School. 

Still, it was tough for Rachel Bartkowiak to submit her children’s withdrawal papers, “Leaving Lycée broke my heart,” she said. “(But) the CEO made clear he was completely uninterested in the culture Lycée was supposed to be.”

Though her children no longer attend the school, she maintains loyalty for the staff: teachers are the soul of Lycée, she said. 

As Sullivan, her older son, ran around the campus, he peered through the front doors to catch a glimpse of the National Labor Relations Board counting process.  “I can see smiles,” he told his parents.  

But below the surface, he had middle-school concerns. “Am I going to be able to go back to Lycée?” he’d asked his mother last week.

The family has contemplated returning to Lycée for high school so the children could earn the school’s sought-after French Baccalaureate degree, Bartkowiak said. But she believes that the school’s move to let go of some of the school’s most talented French national teachers could erode the school’s culture and stability and cast doubts on its future accreditation and ability to offer the French diploma. “I don’t know if it will still be available,” she said.

With the right angle, eleven-year-old Sullivan Bartkowiak said he could see smiles in the Lycée Français room where union votes were tallied. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

At around 7:30 p.m. on Monday, teachers emerged from the school together, their arms raised despite the rain. A cheer rose up from underneath a nearby tree, the chosen shelter for a group of about 20 huddled supporters that included teachers too nervous to go inside.

Admission to the vote tallying was limited. Allowed through the doors were select union members, all voting teachers, and attorneys from Adams and Reese, representing the school’s administration. 

Lycée management barred reporters from entering the building to witness the count. But one observer described the scene: after the votes were totaled, a National Labor Relations Board representative asked both a union representative and management representative to sign the report. No one from the administration signed it. Lycee officials did not offer an immediate explanation.

But there was no hesitation from Leah Champagne, the union’s lead organizer, who bears a fittingly French name. She picked up a pen and sealed the victory in ink for the newly minted group.

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...