Charter School Chain Accused of Union Busting

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A chain of public charter schools is using its charter status to harass and threaten teachers for trying to unionize, California’s Public Employment Relations Board claims in court.
     The PERB sued Alliance College-Ready Public Charter Schools and its 27 Los Angeles area campuses in Superior Court on Friday.
     United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents thousands of public schoolteachers in collective bargaining, is named as real party in interest.
     An Alliance spokeswoman called it a “dishonest, malicious and desperate” attempt by the teachers union to “intimidate” Alliance leaders.
     It’s the latest of dozens of lawsuits over the years to accuse charter schools of using their status as a smokescreen to spend tax dollars without following state and federal laws on public schools.
     “The core of the injunctive complaint is the allegation that the charter schools are engaging in a campaign of anti-union activity,” the PERB’s General Counsel J. Felix De La Torre told Courthouse News.
     The status quo injunction is intended to “end this pattern of conduct” so the PERB can investigate four charges already before it and determine if state law has been violated, De La Torres said.
     About 70 teachers emailed Alliance’s board of directors in March, announcing their intent to unionize with United Teachers and asking Alliance to meet and discuss “a fair and neutral process to organize,” the complaint states, citing one of the open letters.
     In response, Alliance sent a 4-page letter “that was critical of UTLA, collective bargaining, and unionization and urged employees not to sign authorization cards,” the complaint states.
     Shortly afterward, the board says, principal Lori Rhodes kicked a union representative off an Alliance campus for discussing unionization with teacher Michelle Buckowski. Rhodes then harassed Buckowski, telling her that supporting the union “was an uneducated position,” and that Buckowski should “focus on her upcoming formal performance evaluation.”
     Neither Rhodes nor Buckowski are named as parties to the complaint.
     Alliance banned several other union reps from its campuses for after-school meetings with teachers, claiming they had no right to enter private property. It harassed teachers it caught handing out “union-related flyers” and ordered them to stop it, according to the complaint.
     Frustrated, United Teachers in April filed two unfair practice charges with the board that accused Alliance of anti-union bias, the complaint states.
     But Alliance continued harassing teachers and union reps by, among other things, spying on meetings between teachers and union organizers; forcing teacher Albert Chu to resign after he discussed unionization with other teachers; blocking emails sent from the union to teachers’ work addresses; sending a letter to parents claiming that the union did not have its students’ or teachers best interests “at heart;” and posting an online petition opposing organization on its website and demanding that teachers sign it, according to the complaint.
     Alliance runs 27 charter schools for 12,000 students in and around Los Angeles, and more than 84 percent of its money comes from local, state and federal taxes, according to the company’s 2014 Annual Report .
     In that report, Alliance reported $320 million in assets, $181 million of it in property.
     Of its $116 million in “Revenue and Support,” 71.1 percent ($89.5 million) was “state and local,” 13.6 percent ($15.8 million) was “federal,” 6.8 percent ($7.8 million) came from private donations, and 2.5 percent ($2.9 million) was designated “other,” in the annual report.
     Of its $99.6 million in expenses, 73.9 percent ($73.1 million) went to instruction, 12.6 percent ($12.5 million) to operations and administration, 12.9 percent ($12.8 million) to facilities and interest, and 0.6 percent ($562,664) to fund raising, according to the annual report.
     It is precisely this receipt and spending of tax dollars that should make Alliance and all public charter schools subject to nondiscrimination laws and other state and federal education laws, charter school critics say.
     The PERB filed unfair labor practice complaints against Alliance in late June and scheduled an informal settlement conference for August, “but the parties did not resolve their differences” at the meeting, the complaint states.
     A formal hearing before Administrative Law Judge Morizawa was set for early November, but Alliance kept harassing pro-union teachers and banning organizers from its campuses, prompting the union to file two additional charges, according to the complaint.
     After general counsel De La Torre completed his investigation of the union’s complaints in mid-October, he granted its request to seek injunctive relief against Alliance and all of its schools in court, the complaint states.
     “Defendants’ alleged chilling conduct in the midst of UTLA’s organizing efforts has long been understood as likely to cause an irreparable injury to union representation, because UTLA’s position may deteriorate to the point that effective organization and representation is no longer possible, as time passes the benefits of unionization are lost, the spark to organize is extinguished, and the deprivation to employees of representation is immeasurable. Permitting an alleged unfair labor practice to reach fruition and thereby render meaningless PERB’s [the board’s] remedial authority constitutes irreparable harm,” the complaint states.
     Catherine Suitor, chief development and communications officer for Alliance, told Courthouse News in an email that Alliance is “disappointed … but not completely surprised” at the lawsuit, “given the make-up of the PERB board, the majority of whom are former labor leaders, including several from the California Teachers Association.”
     Suitor said Alliance has respected its teachers’ right to unionize from the get-go and has allowed teachers to hand out information and freely discuss unionization on and off campus.
     She said Alliance has included its staff in the discussion so everyone can share their opinions and experiences and have access to the facts, “not just opinions from UTLA, an organization that for years has been opposed to charter schools and Alliance in particular.”
     “Alliance has been guided by expert legal counsel throughout the campaign and has acted with integrity and transparency. UTLA’s attempts to denounce and intimidate Alliance leadership with attacks on our character are dishonest, malicious and desperate,” Suitor wrote.
     “The Alliance community is proud of our teachers, and we share their commitment to providing a high-quality education for all students. We remain steadfast in our commitment to always put the needs of students first and foremost. Alliance College-Ready Public Schools expresses our disappointment at the continued divisive and disruptive attacks by UTLA against our schools and teachers.”
     The PERB seeks an injunction ordering Alliance to allow union organizers to meet with teachers on its campuses, to stop retaliating against teachers who express interest in unionizing, and to reinstate teacher Chu with full back pay, bonuses and reimbursement for medical expenses.
     It also wants Alliance to give teachers “notice of the actual terms of the resulting court order” via an employee meeting, certified emails, notices on its website, and posted notices on each campus.
     Charter schools have been a divisive issue since Minnesota enacted the nation’s first charter school law in 1991. California followed in 1992. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia today allow public charter schools. About 6,400 of them teach 2.5 million students across the nation.
     Advocates say charter schools allow experimentation and innovation not possible in a moribund, not to say sclerotic, public school system. Teacher tenure has been a particular target, with charter school backers saying tenure protections make it difficult or impossible to fire bad teachers in public schools.
     Critics have described charter schools as legal dodges to send tax money to religiously affiliated institutions and allow public money to be spent with disregard for laws. They have cited statistics that indicate rates of educational success are lower than in traditional public schools, due in part to hiring inexperienced teachers and offering narrower curricula.
     Numerous charter schools have been closed and sued for corruption. States and parents have called them cash cows through which private companies line their own pockets.
     Lack of accountability allows charter schools to weed out “undesirable” students, such as special-needs students, English language-learners and immigrant and low-income children, contributing to de facto segregation based on race and class, according to a May 20, 2014 article in The Washington Post .
     However, a 2013 study from Stanford University indicated that charter school performance is improving, particularly urban charter schools, which primarily benefit minority students. A 2009 study of charter schools in 16 states, also from Stanford , found that found math students in 46 percent of charter schools performed the same as other public schools, 37 percent were worse and just 17 percent performed better. Stanford’s 2013 study, however, found that students in 29 percent of charter schools outperformed public school students in math, while the ratio of underperforming students had fallen to 31 percent.
     California’s Public Employment Relations Board is “a quasi-judicial administrative agency charged with administering the eight collective bargaining statutes covering employees of California’s public schools, colleges, and universities, employees of the State of California, employees of California local public agencies (cities, counties and special districts), trial court employees, trial court interpreters, employees covered by the In-Home Supportive Services Employer-Employee Relations Act, and supervisory employees of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority,” the agency says on its website.

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