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New Orleans charter school union talks proceed, but no copycats yet

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Danielle Dreilinger, The Times-Picayune

Negotiations are going well in New Orleans’ first collectively bargained teacher contract since Hurricane Katrina, at Benjamin Franklin High School, participants say. Yet despite the initial buzz, it hasn’t sparked copycats.

Larry Carter, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, said Thursday the labor union is not organizing teachers at any other schools, nor has it been approached by faculty of a particular school. The group had 5,800 members before the 2005 storm and has 530 now, he said. It posted ajob description over the summer for a charter school organizer.

Collectively bargained contracts for teachers are rare in Louisiana, where school boards have the right not to participate. They exist only in St. Tammany, St. John the Baptist, St. Bernard, St. Helena and Vermilion parishes, union leaders said.

Jefferson and Orleans parishes had contracts in the past only because protracted teachers’ strikes forced school boards’ hands, said Les Landon of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, UTNO’s parent organization. Jefferson’s contract ended in 2012; its chapter’s leader is running for a school board seat.

Charter schools are public entities that operate independently of a local school system. Across the United States, the percentage of charters that are unionized fell 5 points to 7 percent in 2012, according to the Center for Education Reform. Indeed, unions and charter school advocates started off at odds, with organized labor saying charters dictated teachers’ working conditions and charters saying unions protected bad teachers and tied administrators’ hands.

Landon said the small size of charter schools is a disincentive to labor organizers. “The same amount of effort that it takes to negotiate a contract with a district, you spend on one school,” he said.

The American Federation of Teachers thinks charters should open admission to all students. Ironically, its only New Orleans chapter is at Franklin, a charter that requires students to pass an entrance test.

Franklin’s board chair, Duris Holmes, acknowledged the friction between charters and unions. “Some of the charter schools feel very strongly, as do we, (to) not be drawn into the old ways,” he said. “But you’ve got to balance that against – here’s my school,” where 87 percent of the teachers signed a petition to unionize.

No one involved in the Ben Franklin contract negotiations would share details, except to say that the contract’s duration is still being debated. The negotiating team, which includes a United Teachers of New Orleans staff member, has met regularly since July.

“Things are moving along well. We are positive about the direction things are going in negotiation,” said Greg Swanson, a Ben Franklin English teacher. The point is “just fairness and a little bit of job security and having a voice. … It’s about making our school better.”

He said the process had opened up a valuable conversation about real issues at the school, and that the union drive had made the board take teachers seriously.

Swanson said he had not heard from other schools considering a union chapter but that individual teachers elsewhere are curious and watching the Franklin process closely. “I think seeds are out there,” he said.

New Orleans’ only other charter school union, at Morris Jeff Community School, is affiliated with the Louisiana Association of Educators. So far, it has chosen not to bargain a contract. Aesha Rasheed, a member of the school’s governance committee, said teachers have gained a formal role in determining changes in school policy.

At schools without a collectively bargained contract, the two Louisiana unions say they offer legal representation, insurance and professional development to members. That includes suing the state to try to throw out Act 1 of 2012, which stripped away most protections of tenure. A state Supreme Court decision on that law is pending.