Education

Kevin Johnson’s charter schools have long angered unions. Now teachers there may join one.

Michelle Rhee and then-Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson at the St. Hope Benefit Dinner in Sacramento on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. The city teachers union says it has gathered enough signatures to unionize educators at the St. Hope charter school system.
Michelle Rhee and then-Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson at the St. Hope Benefit Dinner in Sacramento on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. The city teachers union says it has gathered enough signatures to unionize educators at the St. Hope charter school system. hamezcua@sacbee.com

A majority of teachers at the St. Hope Public Schools charter system have signed a petition to become members of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, the labor union announced Wednesday.

If completed in the coming months, as SCTA officials expect, the marriage of the activist-style teachers union and the charter school system founded by former Mayor Kevin Johnson would be an odd pairing within the Sacramento City Unified School District.

No other independent charter schools in the district have unionized, and education labor leaders have long been critical of Johnson and his wife, Michelle Rhee. The Sacramento teachers union has remained an ardent opponent of St. Hope since it won school board approval to convert Sacramento High School to a charter campus in 2003.

Rhee is a prominent advocate for charter schools, chairs the board for St. Hope and is the former chancellor for Washington, D.C., public schools, where she drew controversy for bucking the teachers union.

“It used to be insurance companies and the trial lawyers doing the big fight,” said Sacramento political consultant Andrew Acosta. “Now you have this becoming much more of teachers unions vs. charter school playing itself out.”

The Sacramento teachers union has eyed St. Hope schools for years. John Borsos, executive director for the labor group, said there have been periods since the school system was created more than a decade ago that educators expressed an interest in trying to organize.

“From the moment St. Hope was created, there was always a belief that if educators decided it was right for them, then being unionized made sense,” Borsos said.

St. Hope has more than 1,600 students and 100 teachers in four schools: Sacramento Charter High, P.S. 7 Middle School, P.S. 7 Elementary and Oak Park Prep. Its largest school – the high school – has more than 900 students and occupies the former campus of Sacramento High School. The city’s oldest high school, Sacramento High faced possible state takeover in 2003. It closed in June and reopened the next fall as a charter. Within a few years, its graduation rates improved and academic performance improved and its dropout rates fell. By 2009, more than 70 percent of its graduating class was accepted to a four-year college.

Stephanie Farland, a consultant on charter school oversight in California, said she sees the benefits that students can receive when there is no labor agreement. But she also sees the price that young or new teachers pay because of high involvement, home visits and long hours.

“Charter schools often are successful because they have highly engaged and involved staff,” said Farland, executive director of Sacramento-based Collaborative Solutions for Charter Authorizers, which works with school districts and county education offices in California.

One of the reasons, she said, is that “most charters don’t have union rules they have to follow. They really work the teachers pretty hard.”

That translates into historically high turnover rates and burnout, she said. “While they are there, they are doing a great job,” Farland said. “But once they burn out, there are really no protections for them.”

She said she understands the need for teachers to be paid well and fairly. “But for the charters that are successful and have high expectations for teacher involvement, I think unionization is going to hurt that.”

Statewide, about 30 percent of charter schools had some form of collective bargaining agreement or representation in 2015, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

“I think it has a lot to do with the national political context,” Borsos said. “I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and concern. And I think that one thing the labor movement has represented is stability, job security and professional advocacy. And the national turmoil has percolated down into the communities. I think people are feeling the turbulence.”

Borsos said the labor group expects that “when people see the success that St. Hope educators have,” teachers at other charters will want to join in.

The SCTA cited a lack of transparency and high turnover as key issues with the St. Hope system.

Kingsley Melton, a law and public service teacher at Sacramento High, was among those who talked to co-workers about signing the SCTA petition.

“It was not easy,” Melton said of those conversations. “But it was easy to talk about the issues. We’re all in agreement: teacher turnover, lack of voice in the decision-making process involving kids and financial transparency.”

Melton, 40, said some teachers were worried about their own job security. But he said he and others are devoted to the school.

“I do believe wholeheartedly in our school’s mission and vision,” he said, describing the mission as providing students skills and the mindset to graduate from college. “I see unionizing as the best way to do that.”

Dominique Amis, chief operating officer for St. Hope, said in an email that any unionization may change the culture of success in the school system.

“We recognize that there are improvements we can make to ensure our staff feel valued and supported,” she wrote. “We think the best way to do this is through direct, collaborative conversations and actions with our staff rather than combative contract negotiations driven by external parties. The flexibility, autonomy, and collaborative environment we have built at St. Hope has dramatically improved the academic performance and outcome for our students.”

She said that any form of unionization “may challenge the environment and culture of success we have built and prioritize the desires of adults over the needs of our students.”

Amis cited the high school’s strong record of graduating more college-eligible African American male students than all other high schools in the district. The college-eligible rate for the entire high school, she said, is 98 percent. In 2003, by contrast, just 39 percent of the graduating class was college eligible, she said. The high school serves a mostly minority population.

SCTA submitted a petition signed by a majority of teachers, psychologists and counselors to the state Public Employment Relations Board on Friday.

J. Felix De La Torre, general counsel for the employment relations board, said the agency sent a letter to St. Hope Public Schools on Tuesday asking administrators to post notices of the labor effort at school sites for 15 working days.

De La Torre said the school system has the option of filing an objection to the unionization based on procedural or other grounds, and those objections would be investigated.

St. Hope also has 20 days to provide the agency with a list of all employees in the proposed labor unit and their job classifications.

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