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

Smoke, mirrors, and bullying

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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.

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