NY charter schools open up to teachers' union

The state’s teachers union has achieved a breakthrough with a decision by teachers at South Buffalo Charter School to organize to negotiate pay, benefits and working conditions. That marks the first time teachers have elected to unionize in the seven-year history of local charter schools, and organizers said it could signal a much broader growth of unions at charter schools here.

“If the charter school system remains basically what it is today, I think it’s almost inevitable that you’ll see more of them being organized,” said Michael T. Preskop, regional director of New York State United Teachers. “You have administrators feeling they’re in a private setting and that they can do whatever they want to do.”

Most of the state’s 97 publicly funded charter schools are not unionized, and — unlike unionized traditional public schools — establish teacher work schedules and compensation and benefit packages without collective bargaining. The growth of unions could change that dynamic and create pressure at charter schools for tenure rights and work rules like those that now exist at traditional public schools.

Most charter school teachers work under one-year contracts, do not have tenure, work longer hours and — according to union officials — make less money than teachers in traditional public schools.

A spokesman for a statewide charter school advocacy group said NYSUT’s organizing effort is “totally hypocritical” because the union has long fought for measures that would weaken charter schools.

“The unions are very crafty and, I think, manipulative in their message to teachers,” said Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association. “The fact that the unions spent the last eight years trying to cripple the charter schools should not be lost on teachers.”

Murphy said the greater flexibility given to charter schools allows for educational innovation and the dismissal of teachers who are ineffective.

Two of the Buffalo area’s 15 charter schools already have unions, but in both cases that was dictated by state law.

Westminster Community Charter School was required to have a union because it was a former traditional public school that converted to charter school status. The Charter School for Applied Technologies in the Town of Tonawanda faced the same requirement because it had more than the state limit of 250 students when it opened in 2001.

The South Buffalo development is significant because it marks the first time a teaching staff at a local charter school voluntarily formed a union at the request of more than half the teachers.

Murphy said NYSUT recently filed Freedom of Information requests with several Buffaloarea charter schools and is taking a more aggressive role trying to unionize charter school teachers.

“They’re testing the waters and seeing where they can organize,” he said.

The effort to organize charter schools picked up steam last year when NYSUT merged with the smaller National Education Association of New York, said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a NYSUT affiliate.

“There’s a greater attention to it and greater ability to provide resources necessary to help them organize,” Rumore said.

South Buffalo Charter School officials could not be reached to comment.


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