perb walk

Charter school teachers clear hurdle in pursuit of unionization

Disgruntled teachers at Opportunity Charter School won their bid to unionize last week after a state agency approved the United Federation of Teachers to represent them.

A ruling by the Public Employment Relations Board dated Aug. 26 officially certified the union to serve as “exclusive negotiating agent” for Opportunity’s teachers, paving the way for the UFT to assume all collective bargaining rights on behalf of its employees.

With the ruling, the UFT now represents 13 New York City charter schools.

The decision comes nearly four months after teachers held a secret “card check,” during which a majority of teachers signed authorization cards stating that they wished to be represented by a union. Administrators refused to recognize the results within 30 days, setting up the official hearing process through PERB, which began in June.

In reviewing the union vote cards, PERB threw out nearly a third of votes that belonged to teachers who were no longer employed at Opportunity, according to a UFT official. That includes more than a dozen teachers who were abruptly fired at the end of the school year.

The firings led teachers and UFT organizers to accuse school CEO Leonard Goldberg of  retaliating against and intimidating teachers who were loyal to the union, a charge that has been officially filed by UFT lawyers through PERB. Those charges have not been heard yet, the official said.

Through a lawyer, Goldberg has denied that the firings were related to the teachers’ union activities. Both Goldberg and his lawyer declined to comment on the PERB decision.

In explaining their initial decision to unionize, Opportunity teachers said they felt that the school’s founding philosophy had changed and isolated their voices from school policy decisions.

“The school has changed dramatically since I started. Now I feel like I work for a company, not a school,” Jennifer Mitchell told GothamSchools in July. Mitchell, one of the school’s longest-tenured teachers, was among the founding members on the union organizing committee.

Opportunity Charter School has a short but troubled history. Founded by Goldberg in 2004 on a unique mission to serve high rates of special education students and students with learning disabilities, the school struggled on performance reviews, prompting the DOE to  renew its charter only on a shorted term. An investigation last year found aides physically abused students in some instances of behavioral intervention.

The decision means that UFT will now handle all negotiations as part of a collective bargaining agreement that will decide how employees are hired and fired, how much they are paid and how long they work. In exchange, Opportunity’s teachers would become dues-paying union members.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.