Cesar Chavez Prep Campus approves union, board fights back

Last Thursday, in a highly misguided decision to insert a third party between themselves and their administrators, the teachers and instructional staff of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School’s Prep Campus voted 31 to 2 to form the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff through the American Federation of Teachers.  It is the first charter school in the District of Columbia to approve a union, and follows the failed effort in April to bring the same group to Paul PCS.  The move fulfills the call last December by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, to add a unionized charter school to our city as a way of increasing the diversity of his portfolio.

The WAMU’s Kate McGee quotes science teacher Christian Herr’s  reaction to the vote:

“We’re excited for the opportunity to work alongside our school board and our principal to make a school that we’re really proud of into the envy of the district. . . We’ve ready to get to work on a contract that makes our school an even better place to teach and learn.”

But the board of directors over the middle school is not so thrilled.  From its statement:

“Chavez Prep must continue to improve to meet the high accountability expectations in the District of Columbia.  We know we cannot succeed without the support and full commitment of every individual on the school’s faculty and staff.  We expect everyone who joins our school community to uphold our mission and contribute.  By entering Chavez Prep after two years of campaigning, the AFT is responsible for ensuring the success of the school now, too.

Next, the Chavez School’s board anticipates entering a collective bargaining process with the new union at Chavez Prep that will reflect the values of the school and our network.  We believe that what is good for teachers can-and must-be also good for our scholars.  When there are updates of interest to the broader Chavez community we will share them.

The first Chavez school opened in 1998 with 60 students in a grocery store basement.  Our mission has always been to prepare students to succeed in competitive colleges and empower them to use public policy to create a more just, free and equal world.  None of our schools would exist today without the freedom, flexibility and creativity that being a public charter school allows.

We know what distinguishes Chavez Schools from many other schooling choices for DC families and employment options for talented educators, and we are determined to preserve those distinctions as we strive to be among the city’s highest-performing schools.”

Perhaps preserving those distinctions will result in the closing of this campus.

Cesar Chavez PCS fighting back against efforts to unionize Prep Campus

Writer Hamilton Nolan reports that the leadership at Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep Campus is not sitting still while teachers attempt to bring in the American Federation of Teachers at the school.  According to Mr. Nolan, “Yesterday [last Monday], a letter from the school’s principal and assistant principal went out to all teachers and staff. They were informed that there will be an ‘important meeting’ today at 3:30 to discuss the union election, because ‘we are now placed in an accelerated process that has huge implications on ‘[sic]’ how we function as a school and a system.'”

The notice then goes on to explain procedures as outlined by the National Labor Relations Board regarding the election of a union and concludes with the statement, “Over the next few days, there will be a series of events and meetings in an effort to inform all stakeholders of the position of our school and engage in discussions around what this election could mean and the effect it will have on not only our scholars and staff, but our entire Chavez community.”

In my last post on this subject I asked what Chavez founder and current board member Irasema Salcido thinks of this effort.  Now the answer is clear.  According to Mr. Nolan:

“Cesar Chavez Prep’s principal and assistant principal have not responded to a request for comment. But Claudia Andrade, an English Language Arts teacher at the school, told us, ‘Given that our namesake is Cesar Chavez, we expected the Cesar Chavez PCS board would have been more receptive towards our efforts to unionize. Instead, they decided to push back by hiring a law firm and holding a mandatory meeting today. This meeting will take away valuable time that teachers could be spending with scholars in the classroom improving grades.’ And Christian Herr, a science teacher, said ‘Despite our namesake, we never really expected our board to come to the table with us without a fight… Everyone I’ve talked to today has said something along the lines of ‘bring it on.’ We’re ready, and we’ll win.’”

Interestingly, a web search on the subject of efforts to organize at Chavez PCS turned up a Washington CityPaper article from 2010 stating that the charter settled with former Capitol Hill history teacher David Krakow for $15,000 in his claim that he was terminated from the school after he tried to form a union.  The school, however, denied that the teacher was fired over the unionizing issue, with then director of human resources Terri Smyth-Riding stating in the CityPaper piece that, “We did not want to incur any further legal expense.”

A vote by teachers at the Prep campus on whether to unionize is expected at the end of this month.  Let’s sincerely hope that the staff figures out that the introduction of a union will create a gigantic barrier between the needs of the teachers and students and the ability of the school’s leadership to meet them.

Teachers at Cesar Chavez PCS misinterpret contribution of school’s namesake

While I was away studying public schools in Paris, WAMU’s Mikaela Lefrak broke the news that the teachers at Cesar Chavez Public Charter middle school’s Prep campus are preparing to vote at the end of this month on their desire to join a union.  The plan appears to be a repeat of the failed effort at Paul PCS earlier this year to form the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.  In the case of Paul, the AFT called off the ballot after it was clear the measure would go down in defeat.  Let’s hope the same thing happens at Chavez.

Ms. Lefrak includes in her article the rationale for the move to unionize at the charter:

“’We’re a school named after Cesar Chavez, famous for unionizing migrant workers,’ said school librarian Jennie Tomlinson. ‘We just want teachers to have a say in decision-making.’”

What Ms. Tomlinson does not understand is that once a union is brought into Chavez, teachers will have less say at the school than they currently do since every major decision will have to be negotiated with management through a collective bargaining agreement.  Gone will be the day staff can walk into the principal’s office with an idea that can be tried on the spot.

I also have to say that the analogy to the lifework of Cesar Chavez is simply false.  A recent article by WAMU’s Maureen Pao about the contributions of Mr. Chavez recalls:

“Born into a Mexican-American family of migrant farm laborers and a life of grinding poverty, Chavez dedicated his life’s work to improving conditions for the legions of farmworkers who kept fresh food on the tables across America — while they often went hungry, living and laboring in abysmal conditions and being paid unlivable wages.”

I highly doubt similar circumstances exist for the educational professionals at Chavez.

At this point, according to Ms. Lefrak, about 28 of the charter’s 35 teachers plan to cast ballots to approve the union.  I wonder what Irasema Salcido, the founder of Chavez, who grew up on a farm tilled by migrant workers, thinks about the organizing effort.  I really wish Scott Pearson, the executive director at the DC Public Charter School Board, had never suggested that a unionized charter come to our city.