Teachers union approved for N.O. charter school

Taking the initial step in what will be the first unionized charter school in Louisiana, teachers at the Morris Jeff Community School received recognition from the school’s board of directors Thursday.

“One of the most amazing things about this is that it did not come about because of any problems,” teacher Rowan Schafer said. “It came out of a conversation about how to make our school better.”

The new union announced Thursday night, the Morris Jeff Association of Educators (MJAE), is an affiliate of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE).

The LAE provides legislative initiatives, legal assistance, professional development opportunities and member benefits.

Schafer said the group’s first goal was realized Thursday night with the board’s recognition of the union. The motion to recognize the MJAE as the collective voice of the teachers passed unanimously, as did the motion to take the next step to have the board’s governance committee develop a plan for how the communication process will work.

The teachers representing the association said they were speaking on behalf of 94 percent of the school’s teachers.

“We want to work with you to make the goals together,” teacher Meghan Johnson told Principal Patricia Perkins and the board.

The trend of unionized charters is growing nationally, some out of voluntary efforts as is the case at Morris Jeff, and some in states that require most charter school teachers to be part of districts’ collective bargaining agreements.

Some charter schools, including a handful in Louisiana, have collective bargaining agreements but are not unionized.

Teacher Aaron Forbes said a common misperception of teacher’s unions is that students aren’t being put first. Forbes said that in every conversation teachers at Morris Jeff had about forming a union, they constantly reminded each other that the students were the reason why they were there.

Perkins, who acknowledged she had met with the group prior to Thursday’s meeting, spoke in support but stressed that the teachers continue to be the driving force behind the union.

The largest association for professional educators in Louisiana, the LAE is an affiliate of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest professional employee organization.

Other board members encouraged careful and deliberate planning while taking the next steps to map out the terms of the relationship with the LAE and the long-term sustainability of the union.

Grant Shreiner, UniServ Director for the LAE in Orleans Parish, said that in his discussions with the teachers, they always said they wanted to do it differently.

Shreiner told the board that when they approached him, he told them: “This is your union. Do what you want and tell me how I can help.”

More than anything the teachers want the official collective voice to say they are totally invested in the school and wanting to see it succeed, Shreiner said.

The teachers said they spoke with other unions, including the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), before choosing to join the LAE.

The UTNO was all but dismantled following Hurricane Katrina and the mass firing of all of the district’s teachers. Currently, UTNO does not have a collective bargaining agreement with the Orleans Parish School Board.

Broderick Bagert, former and founding board president at Morris Jeff, said one of the most striking prejudices in the language surrounding education reform is that against teachers’ unions.

Bagert said there is an opportunity to create a new model of a union that others say can’t be done — for the city, state, and country.

“What we learned at Morris Jeff is that reform works better on every level when everybody is engaged deeply in the process of decision making,” Bragert said.

“The most significant limit of school reform is that it has not been figured out how to engage the educators deeply in the process of decision-making.”

Shreiner said the MJAE’s success will set a precedent in collaboration between boards, administrators, and teachers.

“This is not about teachers wanting more for themselves, but about teachers wanting what’s best for the students,” he said.