By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Catherine Cook, Edison Charter Teachers Union of San Francisco president, works with Andres Rojas.
What do you do when your school board is out of control, your administrators are mishandling money, your work environment can best be described as “hostile” and your school has a nearly 70 percent rate of turnover among teachers?
Teachers at the K-8 Edison Charter Academy in San Francisco couldn’t turn to their union for assistance, because they didn’t belong to one. So they decided to create one, and turned to CTA and NEA for much-needed help.
Like many who teach in charter schools, teachers applying to Edison were promised freedom from some of the rules and regulations of the Education Code, a chance to work in a stimulating environment and the opportunity to truly make a difference. But in this case, they got much more than they bargained for.
Teachers had been told they would be paid 1 percent more than members of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF). But they were paid less, and worked longer hours. Instead of being thanked for their hard work, they were unappreciated. Every year, at least 65 percent of the teaching staff quit.
Teachers discovered they were unable to make any decisions since the school board — consisting of three individuals — called all the shots. Board members changed grades given by classroom teachers. They revoked a discipline policy put into place. And board members even canceled a dance for all middle school age students because their children or grandchildren violated school rules and were not allowed to attend.
But the final straw came when board members allegedly refused to hand over grant money the school received from the state to run an after-school program.
Teaching staff approached UESF for help, but were told that they couldn’t join, since that chapter’s bylaws did not allow charter school members. So they reached out to NEA and to Carolina Monroy, a CTA charter school organizer.
Deciding to unionize was somewhat scary, they admit, because as “at-will employees” they feared being fired without due process. But the teachers were so outraged at the injustices they witnessed on a daily basis that they decided it was well worth that risk. The vote in favor of forming a union was 28 to 2, and nobody was fired.
“We felt like we had absolutely no say in our future or in anything,” relates Catherine Cook, president of the newly formed Edison Charter Teachers Union of San Francisco (ECTUSF) and an elementary grade teacher. “We felt desperately alone. But it was the right thing to do, and once we became a unit, we became stronger and were able to make some amazing changes.”
Indeed, their accomplishments have been nothing short of amazing. After teachers unionized in spring of 2007, the entire school board resigned the next fall, along with the principal and vice principal. And it was no coincidence that the resignations occurred shortly after the union asked to see the school’s financial records during a negotiations session, says Cook.
“As soon as we began asking for documents and asking questions, we lost them,” says Greg Gallup, negotiations chair and middle school math and science teacher. “It just screamed as one of those situations where people did not want to be held accountable for the decisions they made.”
A special election was held in 2007, and association members recruited local business people and community members to run for seats on the school board. A brand-new seven-member board was elected, and they are described as strong supporters of the school and those who work there. And the new principal and vice principal on board, says Gallup, are financially competent, pro-teacher and extremely welcome.
“Teachers got things done because we stuck together,” says Cook. “As a unit we are really strong and cohesive. We had no idea that these things were even possible.”
Even more amazing: Only two teachers left the school last year, both for personal reasons.
Edison School in San Francisco has a charter issued by the state of California. When it was converted to a charter more than a decade ago, it made headlines because the privatization of public schools was a relatively new phenomenon. Its founder, Chris Whittle, was the owner of Channel I, which created controversy by producing classroom newscasts that included commercials. Whittle is still one of the directors of Edison Schools, which serves more than 285,000 students in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the United Kingdom.
According to the organization’s website, “Edison recognizes the importance of the role of teachers’ unions and has maintained positive, strong, working relationships with the unions in communities throughout the country.”
Although Edison teachers in San Francisco voted to unionize two years ago, it only recently became official with a signing ceremony. And UESF changed its bylaws prohibiting charter members and is now affiliated with the new CTA chapter.
“We broadened our constitution and bylaws to welcome our fellow educators at Edison and other schools,” says UESF President Dennis Kelly. “We believe that all education workers deserve the security and protection of a contract that can be enforced by the strongest union we can build.”
Edison teachers say they feel optimistic about the future and can now focus on creating positive changes within the classroom, since they are working in a calmer, saner environment.
“I think there’s going to be some exciting things happening this year,” predicts Andrew Tuomey, a seventh-grade math and science teacher who serves on the negotiations team. “Now, we have a true collaborative effort between the teachers, administration, school board and community. We can now work together, to make this urban school a true gem.”