Instability causes staff at a Detroit charter school to re-apply for their jobs for second year in a row

Jul 12, 2016 at 11:01 am
Detroit-based charter management companies InspirED Education and New Urban Learning signed a settlement agreement with the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff and the American Federation of Teachers at the end of last month, impelling the management companies to bargain with the staff at University YES Academy (UYA), a charter school on Detroit's northwest side. But any celebration amongst staff over the promised bargaining is short-lived. The school board has decided to hire a new management company for next year, a move that not only invalidates any bargaining between staff and the companies, but also means all teachers will be terminated and must re-apply for their jobs. In other words, there very things staff was fighting for — teacher voice and stability — are once again hanging in the balance.

For a quick recap: The agreement (posted below) follows a March complaint by the National Labor Relations Board, which alleged that Lesley Redwine, the CEO of both companies, created an "alter ego corporation" (InspirED Education) in order to avoid collective bargaining with the UYA Staff, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of union representation in the spring of 2015. 

Days before the staff vote, Redwine announced that New Urban Learning, the school's management company at the time, would be parting ways over the summer; a move that would leave the staff without an employer should they vote in favor of a union (which it did) and thereby invalidate any referendum. Instead of completely walking away from the school, however, Redwine created a new management company, InspirED Education, and submitted an application to run the school under the new company — which she did for the 2015-16 school year. (We detailed the trials and tribulations of that 2014-15 unionization effort, and the interchange of management companies in our October feature, "How far will a charter school go to stop a staff from unionizing?")

While the news of the settlement agreement is being celebrated by many staff members who felt Redwine's companies failed to take their concerns for job stability and teacher voice seriously when they originally voted in favor of a union, it ultimately, however, holds little weight. On Thursday, June 2, nearly a month before the settlement agreement was signed, the UYA school board put out an RFP for a new management company, thereby severing ties with InspirED. Their decision, while likely made with the best intentions — the school's authorizer Bay Mills University had indicated it was considering revoking the school's charter unless changes occurred — further perpetuates many of the issues those looking to unionize were hoping to avoid. 

"Ultimately, the UYA board likely made this decision to move the school in a positive direction — which was necessary — but this situation highlights problems with charter school governance," says Nathan Walker of AFT-Michigan. "Changing management at the top, for good reason, has unfortunately destabilized the school and disrupted the learning environment for students by turning over the entire staff. There has to be a way to change management without disregarding all teachers." 

Since charter school teachers are employed by the management company and not the school or school board, this means that any requisite for bargaining is null and void now that InspireEd (the current employer) is leaving. More notably, when a charter school management company leaves, the entire staff is terminated and must reapply for a job with the new management company. In other words, the board's decision to hire a new management company further replicates the very uncertainty and fickleness those in support of a union were hoping to avoid.

On Tuesday, June 21, two days before the agreement was signed, the school board announced their intentions to sign a contact with local education management company New Paradigm for next year. The contract has not, however, been signed, as there is still a squabble over money. While many management companies request 10 percent of a school's per-pupil funding in exchange for their services, New Paradigm requested 15 percent — a large amount that the board said they would be unable to pay. While the board and New Paradigm negotiate the contracts, staff has still been told to begin applying for jobs on New Paradigm's website should they hope to be considered for a position with UYA next year.  

"This was my first experience at a charter school, and it makes me very disenchanted about charter schools as a whole," says Melanie Ward, a 10th grade English teacher, who had been with the school for one year but in the field of education for 14 years.

One point of contention for Ward is that teachers and students have been kept in the dark about decision-making at the school. Not only were no educators asked to weigh in on the RFP for next year's management company but the school's board and Ralph Bland, the CEO of New Paradigm, have remained vague as to whether UYA's high school will remain open next year. A fact that could leave a number of students in a crunch in the fall should the high school close. 

"What's most frustrating to me is I have emailed the board and Bay Mills multiple times over the past few months about my concerns and have had no response," Ward says, adding, "It's very frustrating and disappointing. I loved my students this year and it's very sad to watch 15- and 16 year-olds tell you, 'But you care about me, I don't want to come back if my teachers aren't back next year.' Or 'Where are we going to go next year? Why do we always have to start over every year?'" 

When asked for a comment on why they chose to go with a new management and how they made their decision, the three current board members of UYA said they'd rather not comment to the media at this time. 

InspirED NLRB Settlement by Allie Gross on Scribd