How far will a charter school go to stop a staff from unionizing?

Smoke, mirrors, and bullying

Brooke Harris can still remember the excitement she felt back in the spring of 2013 when Detroit's University YES Academy got in touch for a job interview. Coming from a notoriously dysfunctional EAA school — Mumford High — Harris was thrilled when she heard the northwest middle school was looking to start an elementary and high school.

While Harris, who graduated from University of Michigan's School of Education in 2008, was charmed by the charter's colorful hallways — replete with Nelson Mandela quotes, college pennants and posters emblazoned with words like "grit" — it was the gravity of the recruitment process that sealed the deal. Having been hired by Mumford after a 20-minute interview in a Starbucks, there was something refreshing about the UYA rigmarole, which required Harris to teach a sample lesson, complete a written exercise, and interview with the school superintendent/charter management organization CEO Lesley Esters Redwine.

If the school is so serious about picking the right teachers, Harris contemplated at the time, it must really respect the opinions and hard work of those it does select.

This, she discovered after starting as a high school English teacher in the fall of 2013, was not exactly the case. Teachers were kept in the dark about curriculum choices, there were issues with payment, and when enrollment was under the desired goal the charter management company rearranged schedules getting rid of a prep period. More remarkably, there was nowhere to vocalize these issues since board meetings were held in the middle of the school day, thereby precluding teachers from attending. Even if teachers were miraculously able to make a board meeting because of an aligned lunch break or prep, there was a pervasive fear of speaking up and causing a ruckus. Charter school teachers, for the most part, are at-will employees, which means there is not only a constant fear that one could lose their job from one year to the next, but that speaking out and being considered a "Critical Carla," could somehow negatively impact employment.

After a year of feeling mute, Harris and other UYA-ers made the decision to organize a union last fall — a choice that not only took her and her colleagues on an emotionally exhausting journey, but gave them a firsthand account of the lengths a charter school board and management company would go to halt the unionization process. As they'd eventually discover, control over a school trumped the interests of its teachers, and according to many UYA staffers interviewed by Metro Times, the needs of its students. Despite voting in favor of a union last spring, the teachers at UYA are still not organized.

"University YES actually drove me out of teaching," Harris emailed MT.

Today, Harris — a former high school English teacher who proudly recalls the time she got her honors class to debate Steinbeck "so passionately that the dean of students came in because he thought there was a fight" — works at a Starbucks.

Pinpointing when charter schools and unions became such incongruous forces is challenging, especially since in the early days the two were closely intertwined. One of the initial champions of these independently operated, publicly funded-districts was Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker supported charter schools under the premise that they would have the flexibility to experiment with new teaching techniques that could ultimately be integrated back into traditional public schools. At an AFT convention in 1988 — a few months after Shanker spoke publicly about the charter idea — 3,000 union members signed their support for the idea.

In those advance conversations, buzzwords like "competition" and "portfolio model," which today are commonly plugged into charter speak, were absent. Shanker and other early advocates stressed that teachers in charter schools had to be unionized in order to ensure they felt comfortable deviating from the status quo without fears of retaliation or dismissal. And so, it comes with little surprise — at least in this context — that when the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992 its staff was unionized.

Of course, each state and legislature passing charter laws had their own goals for these decentralized districts; so, while yes, charters may have been touted by AFT affiliates and aligned with unions in the early days, that doesn't necessarily mean all charter advocates prescribed to Shanker's vision. When Gov. John Engler signed Michigan's charter school law in January 1994, the objective was less about creating partners for traditional public schools and more about competition and choices beyond what currently existed.

"Engler has consistently supported reforms and efforts to promote choice and weaken the public school establishment," write charter school researchers Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson inWhat's Public About Charter Schools?, a 2002 book on the genesis and efficacy of school choice in the state.

A few months before Engler signed off on charter schools, the Michigan legislature voted to eliminate property taxes as a source for public school funding. The manufactured crisis — a loss of $6.5 billion in school taxes for the 1994-1995 school year — was the backdrop for conversations that followed around funding equity and charters schools, which like all Michigan school's today, had no local revenue base. As the state made plans for funds to follow students the charter goals became more apparent.

"The total funding level of schools will be determined by how many students they can retain or attract. The schools that deliver will succeed. The schools that don't will not. No longer will there be a monopoly on mediocrity in this state," Engler said in an October 1993 speech.

This focus on free markets and privatization — 79 percent of Michigan's charter schools are run by for-profit management companies— set a somewhat strained tone between the local unions and the charter movement. Nationally a similar phenomenon was occurring, resulting in the AFT and the National Education Association, the two largest teachers unions, taking national stances against charters as well. In 1993, one year after the first charter opened, Shanker himself renounced the idea, calling charters an anti-union "gimmick."

As unions pushed against charter schools, the education reform movement shoved back with a narrative of schools in crisis, which largely blamed incompetent teachers, and the unions protecting them, for the achievement gap. Charter schools could do their part in this generation's civil rights battle — education equality — by using their flexibility to get around unions and collective bargaining, and instead stand up for hiring-and-firing latitude.

While the Michigan Association of Public School Academies' spokesperson Buddy Moorehouse says the coalition for charter school leaders "does not have an official stance on unions" (MT tried getting in touch with president Dan Quisenberry on several occasions but he would only speak through Moorehouse), their website indicates partiality explaining that most charter schools don't have unions because they "prefer the ability to [be] innovative and remove the red tape element when a teacher is not performing."

The Great Lakes Education Project, a Michigan-based charter advocacy group, more accurately highlights the dichotomy between unions and charter schools. Funded largely by the right-to-work, union adverse DeVos clan, the organization has been forthright in its declaration of union failures, stating on its website in 2004 that unions are "status quo forces looking to protect their cash cow."

So yes, there has long been a history of tension between charter advocates and unions. And while MAPSA is correct in that most charter schools today are not unionized — a 2012 report from the Center for Education Reform found that only 7 percent of charter school teachers are unionized nationally, compared to 68 percent of traditional public school teachers — there has still been increased interest among charter school teachers, like Harris and the other UYA-ers, to organize. Reasons range from a desire for teacher voice to promised stability.

In the mid-oughts the AFT, while still formally against charters, began to recognize that while they may be opposed to the movement, they are not against the teachers. Between 2007 and 2008, the AFT opened charter-organizing divisions in seven cities, including Detroit. Since then the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff has successfully organized three schools: Cesar Chavez Academy, the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, and Arts Academy in the Woods, which is based in Fraser.

UYA was supposed to be the next one.

On Labor Day of 2014, Harris and fellow UYA teacher Becky Kissel met at Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. in Midtown to discuss organizing. A few weeks earlier, when the teachers had returned for professional development, they were informed that the school's charter management organization, New Urban Learning, had purchased Amplify, a pilot English language arts curriculum from News Corps.'s calamitous foray into the ed-tech arena. No teachers had been asked to weigh in.  

"I have no clue how they picked it because no teacher was even informed they were looking for new curriculum," says Kissel, who was a content lead English teacher that year and viewed the curriculum choice as the final straw. "We wanted to unionize because there was a lack of teachers' voices and we wanted it to be OK for teachers to voice their opinion."

About three months later, on Dec. 4, the organizing teachers informed NUL and the administration of their intentions. Within a day NUL and UYA's board pushed back.

That first week there were one-on-one meetings between teachers and administrators to get to the bottom of their concerns; there was an after school meeting with UYA board president Bishop Edgar Vann — who made clear his intentions to squash the organizing; and there was the announcement of the University YES Academy Network Teacher Council — a principal appointed group of six teachers (two from each school) that would meet with Redwine, the CEO of NUL and superintendent of the school, to voice concerns.

When these moves didn't halt the organizing efforts, UYA and NUL turned up the heat.

On Dec. 9 Redwine sent the staff the first of many intimidating emails.

"To be clear, the leadership of University YES Academy's schools are not anti-union. However, we want to be equally clear that supporting the unionization of any of our schools is NOT in the best interests of either our teachers, our students or in our pursuit of excellence in all we do," she wrote, later adding, "For our part, we are committed to providing you information — and not empty promises or propaganda, that will hopefully lead each of you to the same conclusion — A UNION IS IN THE BUSINESS OF SIGNING UP MEMBERS AND MAKING DEMANDS THAT ARE NOT ALIGNED WITH OUR MISSION OF DOING OUR UTMOST TO ACHIEVE EVER IMPROVING STUDENT EDUCATIONAL OUTCOMES."

Nothing, however, could have prepared the teachers for what came next. On Dec. 10, less than a week after the teachers made their announcement, Kissel and another pro-union teacher, Debra Chen, were suspended indefinitely. Their misdeed? Taking students trick-or-treating more than a month prior.

While the teachers were ultimately out for only three days — pressure from teachers and parents ultimately led the school to reverse course — the message was clear.

"People started saying, 'I don't want to end up suspended like Becky,'" recalls Harris. "It was a scare technique and it definitely worked."

For Kissel's part, she acknowledges how silly the whole thing seemed, especially since the school marketed itself as a community school where teachers were supposed to be a part of their students' lives, taking kids for ice cream on the weekend or driving them home from school if they didn't have a ride. Still the implications of the suspension stung. "It felt like a personal attack where they were questioning our integrity, character, and judgment under the guise of the safety of kids — when that wasn't really what was happening," says Kissel.

In the fall of 2010, UYA opened its doors to sixth-grade students in Detroit. Created with a $5.8 million donation from the Wayne and Joan Webber Foundation, UYA was the brainchild of Doug Ross, the founder of NUL and the University Prep network of schools. A year prior, Ross, with funding from the Kellogg Foundation and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, had formed More Good Schools, a nonprofit intent on bringing national charter chains to Detroit. After a 2009 trip with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm to visit Texas charters, Ross became set on starting a YES Prep in Detroit. UYA's first principal, Agnes Aleobua, trained in Houston with the YES Prep team, but the relationship soon disintegrated. When other chains failed to bite, Ross did the next best thing: hire individuals from the very chains that said no. Redwine, and her husband Eric, were outsourced talent. Both came from Achievement First, a charter network with schools in New York and Connecticut.

Coming to Detroit in 2011, a year after UYA opened, Redwine became the CEO of NUL, the company Ross founded in 1999, and over time the superintendent of UYA. Her husband was brought on to serve as the superintendent of University Prep, Ross's other schools, a job he held until 2013.

None of the charter chains Ross was focused on had unions, and he didn't have intentions of that happening at the schools he was affiliated with either.

In spring 2009, teachers at University Prep attempted to form a union; when they attempted again in 2010 Ross threatened to leave, explaining that their decision to organize was a personal affront. "Know that if you decide to vote in a union — which is your right — everything changes. UPA will not be the school and work environment we have today," he wrote to teachers in a November 2010 email that was based off a speech he had already given to them in person. The threat of uncertainty — Ross had been with the schools from the beginning — scared many of the teachers. They did not end up unionizing.

While that same email to University Prep teachers had a section where Ross said he would have been willing to work out a contract that better ensured job security if they had only come forward with concerns before organizing, other writing by Ross indicates otherwise. In an undated letter to "The Next President," published by the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., Ross runs down the essentials for a successful urban school. "The second prerequisite is the abolition of tenure as we know it," wrote Ross. "In nearly all successful urban schools, the principal formally or informally controls who works at the school — in short, principals at these schools have genuine power to hire and fire."

Despite UYA having this hire-fire flexibility, and out-of-state talent from national charter networks, it floundered academically. In the fall of 2011, University Prep's main funder, Bob Thompson, a billionaire who made his money in the pavement industry, requested that UYA and the Prep schools not be so closely tied together, and that NUL manage the districts separately. By the end of that school year Prep signed onto a new management company, Detroit 90/90, and UYA was identified as a priority school, meaning it ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. If it had been a Detroit Public School, like Mumford High, where Harris had come from, it likely would have been placed in the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

While Ross and the administrators at U Prep may have been able to get away with intimidation tactics to scare teachers out of unionizing, the same could not be said at UYA — at least not in the beginning. Following the suspension of Kissel and Chen, Michigan ACTS, the charter-organizing arm of AFT Michigan, filed its first batch of unfair labor practice claims with the National Labor Relations Board.

On March 31, Redwine sent an email to the staff with the board settlement. In the statement NUL had to promise to adhere to several guidelines including, but not limited to, not giving the impression that they were watching union activities, not asking staff to identify work problems, and suggesting they could solve them in order to weaken interest in unionizing, and not equating union support with misconduct or harassment.

With some of the common anti-unionization tactics off the table, Redwine and NUL shifted approaches. On April 13, a week after NUL and Michigan ACTS reached an agreement to hold union elections in May, NUL announced it was leaving UYA. "We believe that a larger charter management organization with more resources and fresh ideas would better enable UYA to meet its 90-90-90 goals — game changing goals we believe are attainable," the letter forwarded to the staff by Redwine and signed by the NUL board members, which included Ross, said.

NUL's decision to leave UYA threw an interesting wrench into the unionization plan. While charter school teachers work for a school, the school and board is not their employer, but rather they are employed by the management company. With NUL leaving, so too was the employer that the staff hoped to collective bargain with. Not only would NUL's resignation essentially invalidate the union drive, but it would mean more instability for staffers. When a charter school management company leaves the entire staff is terminated at the end of the year and must reapply for a job with the new management company. The very things the staff was fighting for — a voice and stability — were being threatened.

In the days leading up to the vote Redwine shut down attempts by the staff and ACTS to find solutions to this issue. When ACTS recommended creating a teacher transition team that could help select the new management company, Redwine wrote the staff saying that while she expected listening tours and conversations with the staff, ultimately the new management company would "not be determined by New Urban Learning or NUL employees."

Less than a week before the May 6 election, Redwine sent out another email trying to dissuade staff members from voting in favor of a union. This time, she reiterated the fact that since she and NUL were leaving, any election in favor of a union would be fruitless. "The NLRB election does not involve UYA. The union is seeking to represent certain employees of New Urban Learning, which will cease to be the designated management operator of UYA in a few months." This email was followed by one last attempt by Redwine to steer the staff away from a vote to unionize. "I am sure that you would appreciate knowing all the facts, because union dues, initiation fees, or other costs you might be asked to pay with go to Michigan ACTS, and not the teachers. Team, ask questions and please sure to get the facts before you cast your vote on Wednesday May 6th. Have a wonderful week!" wrote Redwine.

On May 6, despite all the pushback from NUL and the UYA board, the staff voted in favor of a union.

"We won with a supermajority," Kissel, who now teaches at a KIPP school in Texas, says with a mix of pride and frustration. "We won. We had a union and were going to start to bargain, but we couldn't bargain with NUL because they were leaving."

Despite the final vote being 27-18, the staff just had to wait. UYA's board had pushed back its deadline for RFP submissions and the new management company was still unknown.

Some teachers, like Harris and Kissel, were sick of the school after all the tumult and were looking for other places to work, while others didn't like sitting with the uncertainty. One big point of organizing was stability — teachers could know they had a job and could really invest time and energy into the school — with NUL leaving there was no certainty of who would be hired by the new management company, or even who that management company would be.

On June 12, a little over a month after the staff voted to unionize, Redwine registered a nonprofit, InspirED Education, with the state of Michigan. She submitted an RFP to run the school more than a week earlier.

"I couldn't believe it!" says Dawn Wilson-Clark a former UYA parent, who took her daughter Dana out of the school at the end of last year. "I was on a field trip in Lansing with Brooke [Harris] and the kids when we heard the news. Unbelievable." Wilson-Clark, who vacillates between frustration and incredulity over the "shenanigans" Redwine and the NUL team pulled, had become an advocate for the teachers over the course of the year and made it her duty to attend board meetings to hold the management company and board accountable.

Despite knowing her daughter would not be returning to the school, Wilson-Clark and her husband Jonathan showed up for the July 21 board meeting when the UYA board voted to contract Redwine's new company— which was not around during the union elections and therefore had no requirement to bargain — to run the school. According to board meeting minutes, Damali Sahu, one of the board members, explained why InspirED Education was a better choice than some of the other management companies that submitted RFPs, saying, "the committee recommended that InspirED Education met the criteria for selection based on student achievement, financial reporting, and reputation."

InspirED Education had existed for just over a month at that point — it had never run a school.

But UYA had every reason to conflate the company with NUL, which is what it was clearly doing. Not only was Redwine once again at the helm but of the three people on the management team right below her, two had worked for NUL, including the former NUL chief financial officer.

Wilson-Clark pointed to the consistencies between the two management companies, asking the board why they would go with Redwine's new, similarly sized company if the whole reason they were looking for a new charter management organization was because NUL didn't have the capacity to manage the school. She was told, by a UYA administrator, that it was not the board who felt that the school needed a bigger management company but rather NUL who had said the school needed this when they resigned. What was not addressed was why Redwine, who ran NUL, had suddenly changed her mind about what was best for the school. If the school needed a management company with "fresh ideas" how could a new management company run by the same team be the solution?

Today, despite the fact that Redwine is still running UYA — she hired her husband Eric as the new head of school — and the UYA board has not changed, the union vote remains invalid. When Michigan ACTS and the AFT reached out to Redwine about recognizing the union and bargaining she wrote back that she, and InspirED, did not have to because: "InspirED Education is a newly formed nonprofit charter management organization unrelated to New Urban Learning," and "Out of 68 employees ... only 17 were employed by New Urban Learning." According to the NLRB a new employer must recognize a union if over half the staff is the same. Whether only 17 are back by design, or because staffers were too turned off from the chaotic 2014-15 school year, is up for debate.

Last week, ACTS filed another round of unfair labor practice charges, this time zeroing in on the current trickery that seems to have occurred with the management companies. It is their belief that InspirED Education — which has much of the same management team as NUL and is headquartered in the same physical offices — is an alter ego of NUL and therefore has an obligation to bargain. The union also maintains that the management company and school should be viewed as joint employers, and therefore UYA, who has been a constant, has a responsibility, as well, to bargain. If the NLRB rules in favor of the latter argument — which is based on a summer decision that McDonald's and its franchisees are joint employers — it would be a game changer nationally for charter school dynamics.

On Sept. 23, less than a month into the school year UYA was in the news. Nothing union related. Purely educational. An 11th-grader at UYA snapped a picture of her commute to school featuring what she says is a daily occurrence: Six children crammed onto a 39-inch seat.

"I took it because it was unsafe," Aleka Simmons, one of Harris's former students, told WXYZ.

While parents and kids like Simmons were up in arms about the dangerous commute, when Redwine's husband Eric, the new head of school, was asked to comment, he told the station that he didn't view the picture as a bad thing — in fact, he said he was happy to have so many kids enrolled in the school.

"It's a quintessential example of charter schools and private management companies putting profit before students," Harris wrote MT, blaming her delayed response on pumpkin spice latte season. "I am so proud of my former, very shy student of two years for her activism in making her school safer for everyone. She's the perfect example of why I went into teaching, and the squashing of that spirit on an institutional level is exactly why I left."

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