Teachers at the Grand Center Arts Academy charter school have begun the unionization process that could end with their being represented by the American Federation of Teachers.
The union said Wednesday that 80 percent of the staff of about 65 members at the academy have signed cards saying they want to be represented by the AFT. Ray Cummings, vice president for political education for Local 420 of the union, which also represents teachers in the St. Louis city schools, said teachers at the school approached the union to talk about representation.
He said teachers there plan to air their concerns publicly at a news conference later in the week, but he did give a general characterization of what they would be looking for in a union contract.
“They’re looking forward to working with the board to come to a mutually agreed upon contract that reflects their combined vision for what makes a student-centered, pro-teacher environment that will retain and attract the most talented educators in the area,” Cummings said.
Asked whether staff members feel they have not been treated well, he responded:
“I don’t know that I would characterize it as ill-treated. They just look forward to having a voice in decisions that are made regarding their students’ learning environment.”
Cummings said he could not give more detailed information about concerns by the staff, but he added that AFT representation has led to what he called “successes” at other charter schools around the country.
Grand Center Arts Academy is one of five locations run by Confluence charter schools in St. Louis, but it is distinct from the other four. It is sponsored by Saint Louis University; the other Confluence schools are sponsored by the University of Missouri-Columbia.
In a statement, Confluence said it was told on Tuesday that “some teachers and staff have expressed an interest in joining the American Federation of Teachers union.” It also disputed talk that teachers were unhappy about dismissal practices.
The statement added:
“Confluence currently does not have unions or collective bargaining agreements at any of its locations; rather, each teacher is employed under his or her own individual employment agreement. Confluence policies and regulations provide appropriate due process protections for teachers and staff in the case of termination.
“Neither the board nor administration has received any complaints regarding the process used for the termination of teachers and staff at GCAA.
“Nevertheless, the Board of Directors will meet to discuss this development and the complex legal issues that apply. As always, we are committed to maintaining a positive work environment, and we will work with our employees in accordance with the law to exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively, while focusing on the interests of our students, as well as the goals of our unique charter school environment.”
Steve Sanchez, an assistant vice president for academic affairs at SLU, said the university will take an arms-length approach to the union situation.
"As the state-authorized sponsor of Grand Center Arts Academy,” he said an in emailed statement, “Saint Louis University is not involved in day-to-day operations of the school, nor in the kind of negotiations typically associated with a teacher unionization effort. We are charged with oversight and evaluation of the GCAA Board of Directors, and with ensuring that GCAA meets its goals for student achievement and operational viability.
“Accordingly, we will monitor the responses of the board and school leadership to a unionization effort -- but as a sponsor we will not otherwise be involved."
Grand Center Arts Academy, located across from Powell Hall in midtown St. Louis, was founded in 2010 and currently serves about 740 students in grades six through 12. In addition to an academic curriculum, it emphasizes an arts curriculum that includes visual arts, theater, dance and music.
In the most recent MAP scores released last month by the state, the arts academy had 54 percent of their students scoring proficient or advanced in English, 20.9 percent in math and 58.5 percent in science.
As far as unionization of charters in Missouri is concerned, Cummings called the situation “somewhat uncharted waters.”
Doug Thaman, who heads the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said in an interview that his group doesn’t take a position one way or the other about unionization of charter school staffs. But, he said, schools should make sure that any contract they reach with teachers should be aligned with that school’s model of how it wants to teach students.
“Our focus,” he said, “is the goal of the school and the autonomy of the school to implement its model. That is what benefits kids and their education.”
Thaman said that because a school’s board is its ultimate authority, a union would negotiate with the board to come up with a contract. A charter school’s sponsor – SLU, in this case – functions as a monitor to make sure the school is complying with the terms of its charter.
A previous situation involving unions and charters came at Construction Careers Center, a defunct charter sponsored by the city school system. Teachers there wanted to be represented by the AFT, but they were unable to reach a contract. They did win a court case that said they had the right to seek good-faith bargaining.
The school has since been shut down.
Grand Center Arts Academy saw an earlier situation involving personnel in 2013, when the school’s founder, Lynne Glickert, was dismissed from her post as principal. Protest by parents led to her being brought back temporarily while the search for a new principal was conducted. The school takes note of her founding role on its website.