Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Niagara Charter School Teachers Still Saying "No Thanks" to Union

What part of "Get Lost" does the NYSUT local in Niagara-Wheatfield not understand?

The teachers at the Niagara Charter School are staging a protest today outside the charter school to oppose being forcibly represented by the Niagara-Wheatfield Teachers Association, the district union local of the New York State United Teachers. The teachers issued a press release announcing the protest, which was reported in today's Niagara Gazette (here).

Last month the charter teachers were told in a ruling by the Public Employee Relations Board that the district teachers union was their representative, pursuant to the Charter Schools Act in state Education Law. The teachers claimed that they had to formally recognize the union under the state's Civil Service law (aka, the "Taylor Law").

The Charter Schools Act (which is Article 56 of the state Education Law) requires that charter school teachers in certain circumstances are automatically deemed members of a separate negotiating unit of the union representing like positions in in the school district in which the charter is located. In Niagara's case, the school's enrollment exceeded 250 in its first year, which triggered this provision.

The teachers have resisted union membership ever since, but the Niagara-Wheatfield teachers union refuses to take "no thanks" for an answer. Instead, the union by law is its "representative" in collective negotiations and will extract dues from the teachers for this unwanted service.

This is truth being stranger than fiction. The Niagara Charter School teachers already are competitively paid, have a great working relationship with the school's administration, and have raised student test scores each year of the charter. They accomplished this without the help of the union, and certainly don't need to pay the union for something it can get on its own for free.

The Niagara-Wheatfield Teachers Union should follow the path of the UFT in New York City and buzz off, and leave the Niagara charter school faculty to its own devices. They are not wanted. The UFT let go of its representation of KIPP Infinity teachers, likely because they feared a PERB ruling in favor of the decertification petition by those teachers (a different proceeding than what the Niagara charter teachers filed and lost before PERB).

Charter Schools Act Union Provisions A Sausage Mess
The union provisions in the Charter Schools Act represent a classic example of legislative sausage-making since they were the result of negotiations between then-Gov. George Pataki, who proposed no union mandates, and the state legislature that wanted union charter schools as a sop to the powerful teachers union.

The whole compromise is flawed and constitutionally suspect. For instance, charter schools and school districts by design are competitive with each other; that is, they compete for many of the same students and the public funding attached to those students. This is why school districts and unions have long opposed charter schools - they want the public dollars to remain with them rather than go with a student to a charter school.

Yet, the same law establishing this competitive design provides that the same union represent "like positions" in a competing entity. This conflict of interest in the union statutory mandate was never more obvious than this year during the state fiscal crisis when the teacher unions urged the state legislature to freeze the charter funding formula -- hurting their own dues-paying union members in charter schools.

Why did the union bosses hurt their own members? Because that same formula freeze saved $50 million for school districts which employs a lot more of their teacher union membership. The choice was easy.

Niagara teachers also have a choice to make. They can go the KIPP Infinity route and petition PERB to decertify the NYSUT local. They also can file an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court on First Amendment, free assembly grounds; or they can go to the same Charter Schools Act which also provides "reasonable access" to a challenging organization to represent them instead of the Niagara-Wheatfield Teachers Association.

Of course, the Niagara Charter School teachers should not have to take so many steps, costing them time and money, for trying to exercise their liberty as professionals.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.