Throughout Massachusetts, independently run charter schools have operated without unionized teachers, an intentional move that operators say gives them the flexibility to hire or dismiss teachers of their choosing and allows them to make other changes quickly without negotiating.
But that will likely end at two Boston charter schools.
Teachers at two City on a Hill charter schools in Roxbury announced Wednesday they have decided to organize and presented petitions to create unions to the administration of their schools after classes. More than 90 percent of the teachers and other staff members at both schools signed the unionizing paperwork.
Organizers say they see a lot of value in a union, hoping it will increase opportunities for teachers and staff to participate in decisions about their schools, improve teacher retention, create pathways for teacher leadership, and increase budget transparency. Contract negotiations will begin after state labor relations officials certify the paperwork.
“After years of decisions that affect teachers and students at City on a Hill being made without teachers’ input, we need a union to ensure our voices are heard,” said Donald “Max” McCullough III, lead history teacher at the Circuit Street school, in a statement. “Organizing together, through our union, is the best way to advocate first for the needs of our students, and for our own needs as urban educators.”
The teachers plan to join the Boston Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts.
Such marriages can be delicate ones. The Boston Teachers Union and the AFT have often questioned the accomplishments of charter schools and last year successfully lobbied against a statewide ballot measure that would have rapidly expanded charter schools.
The City on a Hill teachers are not the first to tread into this territory. A decade ago, teachers at Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston joined the AFT, which at the time was trying to organize charter-school teachers. The effort turned into an embarrassing development for the charter school movement.
But the union lasted only a few years. Many teachers who spearheaded the effort eventually left, and interest in the union waned. Some teachers also became increasingly frustrated with the AFT’s criticism of charter schools and attempts to block charter-school expansion.
Two teachers leading the City on a Hill unionizing efforts, Neysha Gonzalez and Kimberly Luck, said in an interview they had no concerns about the union’s position on charter schools. They said their teachers and the union have a shared interest in making sure all students in Boston receive a great education regardless of what school they attend.
“I just want to see our students thrive,” Luck said. “When we speak in a common voice and in a union, it enables us to advocate for everyone, which makes our schools stronger.”
The bargaining unit at City on a Hill Circuit Street will have 35 members and at City on a Hill Dudley Square, 30 members.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the union is proud to have the charter teachers as members.
“Our priority is creating exceptional and successful learning experiences for all students,” Tang said in a statement. “That means improving the working conditions of all educators, including those working at charter schools funded by taxpayer dollars, to reduce turnover and sustain stable learning environments for students.”
Charter schools have long been considered ripe for unionizing. Charter schools typically pay teachers well below what they could make at district schools. Consequently, teacher turnover is high.
In response, several Boston charter schools in recent years have tried increasing pay, albeit incrementally, and have created perks, such as offering onsite fee-based child care and flexibility in scheduling activities before and after school.
Yet a Globe review last year of payroll records found the average pay for teachers at the 16 independent charter schools in Boston was approximately $55,000, while the Boston school system has said its average pay for teachers exceeds $90,000.
All the while, many charter schools paid their top leaders more than $150,000, the Globe review found.
City on a Hill administration could not be reached for comment.
Only two independent charter schools statewide out of approximately 70 are believed to have unionized teachers. Those at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich are affiliated with the AFT and teachers at Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough are represented by the Teamsters.
“We recognize that charter school teachers have the right to organize a bargaining unit,” said Tim Nicolette, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. “We hope the school community works together to ensure the school continues to fulfill its mission to provide a high-quality education for its students in a supportive environment for its teachers.”
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