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Charter School Union Dissolved by National Labor Relations Board

By Benjamin Woodard | February 18, 2013 3:48pm
 The Chicago Math and Science Academy opened as a public charter in 2004. In 2010, a group of teachers there moved to form a union.
The Chicago Math and Science Academy opened as a public charter in 2004. In 2010, a group of teachers there moved to form a union.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

ROGERS PARK — Teachers fighting for collective bargaining rights at a public charter school are working to put the pieces back together after a federal ruling dissolved their union.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the Chicago Math and Science Academy and its governing organization, Concept Schools, asserting jurisdiction over the charter by determining it is a private institution, despite it receiving millions in public dollars since 2004.

The union, recognized by Illinois since 2010, is now unofficial, and the teachers must hold an election to re-form it.

"We have to re-prove ourselves," said Patrick Mazza, who has been teaching at the school since his colleagues first organized.

Mazza and others at the school had been waiting for the labor board's decision for more than two years after a ruling in favor of the teachers was appealed by the academy in September of 2010.

If the decision would have been upheld, Mazza said, "we would basically be moving back to the negotiations table."

But now, under the new rules, 30 percent of the academy's employees must sign a petition for an election, said board spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland. Then a majority vote would be needed for the union to be recognized.

"It's becoming a process where we’re in the grassroots and the big boys are playing their game to figure out what’s this legal process," Mazza said. "There are so many unknowns right now."

The ruling, however, is particular to the academy and cannot be applied to any of the other 12 charter schools that have formed unions in the city. But the decision could set a precedent in future cases, said James Powers, a lawyer who represented the academy in the case.

"Are we a government entity?" said Powers, referring to the main question answered by the ruling. "The answer to that is quite significant."

The academy, at 7212 N. Clark St., receives 80 percent of its funding from Chicago Public Schools, according to the ruling, while the remainder comes from federal and state resources. Tax records show the school received $5.7 million in government funds in 2010.

"If our employees are going to choose to unionize," Powers said, "we want to be sure we’re doing it the right way."

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, and several other national and state charter advocacy organizations, supported the union in its original form.

"In some senses the [board] is trying to say these aren’t public schools," said federation spokesman David Comerford. "When it comes to funding charter schools, operators want to be public schools, but when it comes to unions," they want to be private.

"We don’t think they should have it both ways," he said.

Some teachers contend that the pushback from Concept Schools through the years at best proves the school's administration had been stalling negotiations over a contract.

Mazza said the teachers had organized to advocate for students and bring "more of a voice to those of us in the trenches" and share reasonable concerns.

But Salim Ucan, vice president of Concept Schools and the charter's founding principal, said he supports the teachers' efforts.

The Chicago Math and Science Academy "fully supports our teachers and their right to form a union — or not form a union if they choose," Ucan said in a statement. "Our teachers are some of the most talented and dedicated in the city, and we share a common goal of ensuring our students’ success."

"We will continue to work with our teachers, support staff, students and parents so CMSA remains an excellent school."

Brian Hayes, one of the board's four members disagreed with the ruling, dissenting in part and concurring in part.

Hayes contended in a separate opinion that he would consider the academy a public entity "because it is so closely entwined with and defined by those governmental entities in providing services of a peculiarly public and local nature."

Some teachers at the school, however, do not want a union at all.

Tim Stevens, who has taught at the school for seven years, said many of the most "fiery, passionate" pro-union teachers had left the school in the past two years.

And now there's not enough support to form a union under the new rules.

He said the teachers who do want a union are "seeing more and more that they don’t have the support."

He also said the contention among teachers and the administration had "calmed down."

Mazza disagrees.

"There’s a strong interest in having a contract" from teachers who want to "feel secure in their job — not have a fear of being fired," Mazza said.