Teachers at D.C.’s Paul PCS resort to a union to get administration’s attention

News broke yesterday afternoon that the teachers at Paul Public Charter School intend to form their own union entitled the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS) under the umbrella of the American Federation of Teachers.  This would be the first time a charter in the nation’s capital elected to become part of a teachers’ union.  Rachel Cohen of the American Prospect reported that 75 percent of teachers at Paul have signed a petition to join the new collective bargaining unit.  It is not a positive development.

Perhaps it is fitting that this effort is happening at Paul PCS, the only traditional school to become a charter.  As the story goes Cecile Middleton, the principal of Paul Junior High when it was under DCPS,  became so frustrated that she had to go through the central office to do simple things like get a light bulb changed, that she decided to form her own school.  Josephine Baker, former executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, explains in her book The Evolution & Revolution of DC Charter Schools, that it took the leaders of Paul three application cycles of the PCSB to get the project off the ground.  Then, in 1999, the union came in:

“The announcement of the approval of Paul’s application to convert to charter school status was the beginning of intense activity to thwart the conversion.  First, teachers’ union members of Paul’s faculty organized a student walk-out to protest the conversion. The students, who may or may not have cared about the implications of the school changing its governance structure, seemed to offer little resistance to the opportunity to ‘spontaneously’ leave their classes at the suggestion of their teachers.  At least one teacher who helped facilitate teacher signatures of the conversion petition reported being harassed by the teachers’ union representatives” (p. 49).

Ms. Cohen indicated in her story that there were two primary factors that led to the charter school teachers currently at Paul embracing a union.  From her article:

“The first is that administrators brought in a consultant at the start of the 2015-2016 school year to launch a committee with teachers dedicated to discussing school improvements.  After a series of meetings, teachers submitted a list of proposals to their administration, including such recommendations as more transparent staff evaluations, caps on class size, and increased time for teacher planning.  But the suggestions went nowhere.”

Then at the conclusion of last year’s term the well-respected high school principal was not offered continued employment and the staff could not get an explanation for the change.  The instructors banded together to reverse the decision but apparently their viewpoint was ignored.

Four year history and government teacher Dave Koenig expresses the sentiment of the employees, again from Ms. Cohen’s piece:  “In my time here I’ve seen people who are really good, dedicated teachers shown the door because they have personality conflicts with someone above them.  I’ve also seen really good people leave on their own because they feel underappreciated or overworked to the point of developing [a] nervous breakdown.”

WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle explains that conversion to union representation is not a given:

“Though charter schools are publicly funded, they are exempt from the D.C. law requiring the government to enter collective bargaining agreements with public employees. An organizing effort in 2012 by the Washington Teachers’ Union — which represents teachers in DCPS — fizzled due to legal and political obstacles.

A decision last year from the National Labor Relations Board means the teachers’ attempt to unionize will come under the federal law that applies to private sector workers. That gives the school’s management two choices: willingly recognize the teachers’ request for a union, or call an election in which staff would have to vote on whether to unionize.”

If the drive goes through these teachers will be in for a tremendously rude awakening.  In my experience injection of a union creates silos between the front line staff and management.  Modifications to the work environment, from everything from working hours, pay, benefits, and evaluations, must be contractually negotiated.  As I related to Mr. Austermuhle, it is certain to diminish the ability for the charter to rapidly react to the needs and desires of students and parents.

Still, and we have to realize that we are hearing only one side of the story, when management does not effectively listen to staff it invites the introduction of union activity.  The move comes in the aftermath of the Public Charter School Board’s executive director Scott Pearson, publicly inviting unions into our schools.

The Ward 4 charter currently enrolls approximately 767 students in grades Pre-Kindergarten 3 to the twelfth grade.  Both the lower and upper schools are ranked as Tier 2 on the Performance Management Framework.

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