If you were going by the current public relations efforts from Connecticut’s teacher unions or charter school advocates, you would either think that charter schools are union-busting, anti-labor bastions, or that teacher unions are the biggest obstacle to education reform. But that’s not the case at two schools in southeastern Connecticut, where charter school teachers are themselves union members.
At both New London’s Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) and Norwich’s Integrated Day Charter School (IDCS), the school’s teachers are part of a union affiliated with the Connecticut Education Association.
ISAAC’s teachers joined the CEA in 2005, eight years after opening. IDCS opened in 1997 and at the time was one of only six charter schools in the country endorsed by the National Education Association, the national affiliate of the CEA.
In tours of both schools last week, teachers and administrators explained how their schools worked as unionized charters, and where they fit or didn’t fit in the state debate on education reform.
In the shadow of Mohegan Sun casino and just up the road from the crumbling Norwich state hospital lies the Integrated Day Charter School. It shares the former Thermos factory with a number of condos, and has to pay condo association fees, much to the chagrin of Director Anna James.
The K-8 school had 330 students in the 2010-2011 school year, and has a waiting list of 900. Eighty-five percent of the students come from Norwich, and a third of them are from minority populations. Twenty-three percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, which is a percentage well below that of most Norwich schools, according to figures from the state Department of Education.
IDCS also has a much lower English Language Learners population than the local school district, at 3.9 percent compared to 11.5 percent, though the school has 13 ELL students in its pre-K group, which are not included in the Department of Education’s count.
The school boasts sweeping views of the Thames River through its massive plate glass windows. Because the charter school is based around a devotion to mixed age classrooms and interaction between students in large, open spaces, the school has an earthy and organic feel.
Perhaps owing to the small size of both schools, union officials at ISAAC and IDCS described a non-confrontational contract negotiation process. There are 23 teachers at IDCS and all are in the union.
Mary Osten, the president of the IDCS union for the past 10 years, said that although the union is very much a part of the school, things are done a little differently here.
Osten explained that there is typically no CEA representative at the bargaining table when IDCS teachers negotiate a contract, but that she keeps CEA informed of proposals and counter-proposals.
Osten is not shy in explaining that there have been grievances in the past. “Not a lot, but we have had a couple,” she said.
She said that the union has never used arbitration to settle a dispute, nor can she imagine ever needing to use arbitration to resolve one.
June Morrone, one of the founding teachers at IDCS, said that the small size of the school makes for a fairly democratic bargaining process.
“Here, everybody is pretty much directly involved . . . Everybody has the chance for input,” she said.
Corrine McOmber, a first and second grade teacher and a 13-year veteran of New London public schools, said that although she wouldn’t associate the term “strong” with her union, it was an important facet of the school.
McOmber said that the fact that IDCS had a union was one of the things that drew her to the school, having been encouraged to be active in the New London public school union during her 13 years in that system.
She said she was encouraged “that there was some type of voice for teachers.”
Connie Murphy, a kindergarten teacher in her eighth year at IDCS, explained the union’s role for her.
“I think that if you would ask most of the teachers here, itis not an adversarial approach, but there are certain things that — because it is a charter school and we do all our own curriculum writing, we do so many things after hours — that some of the protections that being part of a union afford us are very valuable.”
Murphy also sought to separate the independent IDCS from the Charter Management Organization (CMO) model proliferated by groups like Achievement First, which operates several charters across the state.
Osten and McOmber said that for them, the union’s purpose was political, as much as to protect workers’ wages and benefits.
“It gives us a voice beyond just our school. It does give us a voice in what’s happening in education,” Osten said.
McOmber said that the union was important “not only for us here, but to help inform policy and legislators, who are making policy that aren’t in classrooms that are affecting [us]. I think it’s a strong voice to bring to policy makers.”
McOmber, Osten, and Morrone all said they were excited about the increased funding in the governor’s budget for charter schools. The Education Committee reduced that funding by $500 per pupil last week when it passed its own version of the bill.
But like most public school teachers, IDCS teachers also had concerns about tying teacher evaluations to student performance, which stands as the centerpiece of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s tenure reform efforts.
“I get leary any time the link too much of the evaluation to CMT scores. Because I think that in some cases, from year to year, who you get is so different, and [they] come in with such a different set of skills,” Morrone said.
“What’s to say that they’re not going to target teachers that have been there longer because economic times are hard?” Osten asked.
Twenty-five minutes south on I-395 in New London is ISAAC, where — if Mary Osten says her union is for a purpose beyond the walls of the school — ISAAC’s union president thinks exactly the opposite.
The union is “a protection thing for ISAAC, it isn’t so much a political issue,” Barbara Zegarzewski, president of the ISAAC teachers union, said.
The sixth-through-eighth grade school takes about half of its kids from New London and half from a dozen surrounding towns. According to school officials, 3 out of every 4 children is a minority, primarily Black and Latino. Ninety-two percent of ISAAC’s lunches were either free or reduced in price under the federal program, 10 percent above most New London public schools.
In the 2011-12 school year, 20 of ISAAC’s students were classified as English Language Learners, or 11 percent of the student body. New London public schools, by comparison, average 21 percent ELL students.
Founded in 1997, ISAAC rented space from New London’s Shiloh Baptist Church until 2004 before moving into the YMCA on Gov. Winthrop Street. ISAAC currently has 181 students with another 100 or so on a waiting list. School officials are looking to expand.
A large decoration in the foyer reads “We are crew, not passengers” above student artwork.
Charter schools are often centered around specific learning themes, and New London’s ISAAC seeks as much as possible to infuse art and technology into its curriculum.
The school art and technology focus means that every student in the school gets to play a musical instrument without paying rental fees if they choose. Every year, the entire student body coalesces around an opera that is run entirely by students, from the writing to the performance right down to the electrical wiring.
The opera is so student-centered that last year, when music director Kate Fioraventi was in the hospital giving birth, the students carried on without her.
According to Zegarzewski, labor-management relations at the school have been quiet since teachers organized a union.
She said there has been only one grievance, and it was hers. She filed the grievance against an interim director who she said didn’t understand the policy about paid personal days.
Zegarzewski has taught at ISAAC for 12 years, and was “bumped into” being the union president three years ago.
She is not, by her own admission, “a highly political person.”
ISAAC’s union is not very focused on the language of contracts, and teachers often will work outside the contract, unlike the teachers she’s heard of elsewhere, she said.
“ISAAC does not use the union in that manner,” she said, referring to working conditions.
Zegarzewski said that when teachers did decide to unionize, they were paid “far behind” other schools in the area. The teachers’ decision to unionize coincided with the school’s purchase of the former YMCA building.
She said teachers at the time were concerned that they might be the ones paying for the YMCA building.
Teachers have just come to the end of a three-year contract, which they extended by a year out of courtesy to the new director, Gina Fafard, who wanted to have some experience as director of the school before going into a contract negotiation.
Zegarzewski’s third year as president of the union will be her last, she said.
Heather Delaurentis, a science teacher in her ninth year, was introduced by Migdalia Salas, the school’s director of community relations, as a non-union teacher.
“I’ve worked in three different schools and I’ve never been in the union. I just feel that I’m a great teacher and I don’t need to be in the union and if something is going wrong, I don’t need protection,” she said.
Delaurentis said that she would also like to see Connecticut become a “right-to-work” state, in which non-union workers do not pay dues for representation at the bargaining table.
The union’s president, Zegarzewski, went as far as to question the need for a union, saying that things have gone well in recent years.
The union is “a protection thing for ISAAC, it isn’t so much a political issue,” she said.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A UNION-SPACE
The CEA has recently been running advertisements attacking Gov. Malloy’s education reform package, and making specific reference to the “siphoning of tax dollars away from our neighborhood schools,” which is a reference to increased funding for charter schools.
This strategy has put these unionized teachers in an odd place, stuck between their union and their schools.
“One of the pieces that I struggle with is that CEA is not always pro charter schools,” Osten said.
“It is a rub when I read [CEA talking points] and it talks anti-charter schools, because then I say ‘We’re a member of this,’” Morrone said.
For seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher Jason Deeble, who previously taught in Boston’s Jamaica Plain’s public schools, IDCS’s small size allows it to get lost in the education reform scuffle.
“We’re such a small sample that not too many people want to totally re-do the way they do things just for 300 kids at this school,” he said.
Does the fact of unionized charters exist change the CEA’s position on charters?
Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the CEA, maintains a firm line.
“There is no minimizing the fact that our schools are being underfunded by the state to the tune of an estimated $750 million. Within that context, we cannot support taking money from cash-strapped neighborhood schools and giving it to charter schools. Our goal is to advocate for more money for all schools,” she said in an emailed response.