Updated at 11:10 a.m. Nov. 11 with details of the upcoming election:
Teachers at Grand Center Arts Academy will vote Dec. 4 on whether to become the first faculty members at a charter school to join a union.
The faculty first announced in September that they wanted to join the American Federation of Teachers,. Since then, have dealt with the board of Confluence Academies, which operates the arts academy and four other charters in St. Louis.
In a statement on its website, Confluence said it is cooperating with the teachers and the union on the process necessary before the issue could be decided.
“Confluence recognizes the rights of teachers to organize and will work with employees in accordance with the laws,” its statement says. “The foremost priority is the best interest of students and the learning environment – and teachers are a strong part of the educational environment. We also recognize that our teachers and staff can decide against organizing….
“Confluence encourages all employees to become knowledgeable about the issues and facts to make an informed, responsible vote.”
In a fact sheet on the website, Confluence says the average teacher salary at Grand Center Arts Academy, which is located across from Powell Hall, is $43,880. It says the starting salary of $38,000 for a new certified teacher is $38,000, compared with a salary of $38,250 for a teacher in a similar situation at St. Louis Public Schools.
Of the 60 full-time teachers at the academy, Confluence says, 48 of them would have lower salaries if they were on the 2014-15 salary schedule for the city public schools.
The statement also says the average teacher salary at the academy ranks third-highest among 14 charter schools in St. Louis.
Confluence says Grand Center Arts Academy has accumulated a deficit of nearly $5.6 million over the past five years, but “instead of cutting staff to balance budgets – thereby jeopardizing instructional quality, artistic direction and/or school operations – the Confluence Board of Directors decided to heavily subsidize GCAA to provide the school and its students the best chance for success.”
It says the school’s sponsor, Saint Louis University, and the board want the school to operate in the black as soon as possible.
The website also says that teachers at the academy have more plan time and smaller average class sizes than statewide averages.
The union election will be held at 7:15-8:15 a.m., 11 a.m.-noon and 3-4 p.m. on Dec. 4. The League of Women Voters will oversee the balloting.
Our earlier story:
Teacher eager to join a union at the Grand Center Arts Academy have to take slower steps toward their goal due to several procedural steps the school's operator is requiring. If the teachers succeed, the academy would be the first charter school in St. Louis to be unionized.
Last month, about 80 percent of the staff at the charter school signed cards saying they wanted to be part of a local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
Teachers said they didn’t want to disrupt what they consider to be a positive atmosphere at the school, but they want more certainty and stability in their pay scales as well as more of a say in how the school is run.
The school has 743 students in grades six through 12 and operates out of a renovated building across from Powell Hall. It specializes in visual and performing arts as well as academics.
In the weeks since their initial meeting where the cards were signed, the teachers’ drive toward unionization has been on hold. Confluence Charter Schools, which operates Grand Center Arts Academy and four other charters in St. Louis, has declined to make anyone available for interviews to discuss the situation.
But it has released a series of statements in response to the possibility of a teachers' union. Last week, it spelled out detailed procedures that the teachers and Confluence have to follow before the drive for a union can succeed.
According to a policy approved in mid-September, Confluence first has to determine which employees at the arts academy would be covered by the Missouri Public Sector Labor Law and which would not. Teachers and non-teachers would be treated differently, the statement said, depending on whether they are covered by that law.
For teachers not covered by the law, a neutral third party will review information submitted by the American Federation of Teachers and compare it to a list of employees, to verify that at least 30 percent of employees have shown interest in joining a union.
That neutral party, which was chosen last week, is expected to make that determination “relatively quickly,” Confluence said.
For non-teaching staff, the determination will be made by the Missouri State Board of Mediation.
If the 30 percent threshold is verified, the next steps are determining which jobs are included and which are excluded from proposed bargaining. Confluence has no timeline set for those decisions to be made.
Once the issues involved are settled, either Confluence or the mediation board will set a date for an election.
“If and when an election is held, it is an important matter," the Confluence statement said. The outcome will affect everyone who is part of the proposed bargaining units. Confluence Charter Schools encourages all employees to become knowledgeable about the issues and facts to cast an informed and responsible vote.”
The teachers union did not respond to a request for reaction to the procedures laid out by Confluence.
Security, not morale
As the process to determine possible union membership moves forward, teachers at Grand Center Arts Academy have emphasized that their push does not reflect unhappiness with the school. Rather, they say, they want to have more of an idea of their economic future so they can concentrate on working with students.
“We're teachers,” said art teacher Jess Dewes. “We're busy with the business of teaching. I think having professional advisers to help guide us in contract negotiations that are fair would make sense for our profession, so that we can have teachers who can start their careers here and end their careers here.”
But, she added, charter school teachers should be able to enjoy the same rights that teachers at other public schools have. That includes a fixed salary schedule, which is particularly important for young teachers.
“They want to be able to know that if they go get a master's degree, they're going to get a predictable salary increase,” Dewes said. “If they're going to be here 10 years, they're going to know what they're going to make 10 years from now. They want to have that security.
“From year to year, all teachers do is perfect their craft. If they know they can stay here, they know they can perfect their craft here. It's only going to be good for the students; it's only going to be good for the school; and it's only going to be good for the teachers and their families and everybody who loves the school as much as we do. We don't want to lose any good teachers to other districts because they feel like they can plan a career there instead of here,” Dewes said.
Biology teacher Fred Warren said when he has asked about getting such security without a union, the answers have not been very satisfactory.
“The line that we've gotten has been if you can find a grant or money that we can put toward a raise for you,” he said, “then that would be possible. But as a full-time teacher, I don't necessarily have the time to look for my own raises.”
After he praised the closeness and the camaraderie at the academy, Warren was asked whether the move toward a union might be viewed as a negative factor that could undercut that atmosphere.
“We hope not,” he said. “We've tried to stay really positive in the way that we're approaching this. I know that with our administration here at the school, we still have a really good relationship. We're still moving forward with all the great things our school is doing with a lot of smiles and good feelings between each other.
“And since we're being really reasonable, I would like to think they don't view it that way, that this is a mutually beneficial way that's empowering teachers and encouraging our already fantastic staff to stay here.
Katie Belisle-Iffrig , who has two daughters at the school and was part of a founding family that “started back when the building was full of pigeon poop,” said she supported the teachers’ drive to unionize.
“I don't have a sense that they're not being treated well, necessarily,” she said. “I have a sense that they're reaching out for more say in the way that they're treated, and I think that that's really important.”
No other charter school in St. Louis has unionized teachers. And an open letter to teachers at charter schools from the Missouri Charter Public School Association doesn’t sound too keen on the idea.
“MCPSA calls on charter school teachers to be as innovative in their organizing discussions as they are in the classroom,” the letter said, “and preserve the charter school promise of increased innovation and flexibility at the school level, while allowing for practices that create a positive school culture and improve student achievement.”
As public school educators, if you do enter into organization discussions with any union group it would be well worth a discussion to understand their feelings regarding charter public schools and what the national and local agenda for their union is in regards to charter public schools. Educators could even ask the local union group to place into writing a commitment they will not advocate at the national, State, or local level against charter public schools providing the peace of mind that the educator’s hard earned dollars are not being used against them.
Union representation in charter public schools is rare. Typically all stakeholders in charter public schools (including teachers) are part of the dialogue and decision-making. We sincerely hope that’s been your experience and, if not, encourage you to discuss this with your school leadership and governing board before you make any major decisions. Perhaps it’s just a matter of being aware that more opportunity for the inclusion of all staff members is needed.