Paulo Freire Charter School staff picket, file labor charges

  • Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 8/13/2021 1:05:32 PM

CHICOPEE — Unionized staff at the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School will picket Saturday in front of their school amid uncertainty over the coming school year after management’s decision to let go of over half of the school’s teachers this summer.

Organizers with the school’s staff union are set to protest in front of the school against school’s board of trustees. It will be the second time the union pickets in front of the building after dozens marched in front of the school in June over the mass nonrenewal that month of all 13 teacher contracts that expired this year — an action they say represents a pattern of targeting union activists.

Now, as the school year approaches, union leaders say the firing of all those teachers has created chaos as staff prepare for students to arrive in the building.

“There has been no communication from the school to families about the start date for the school year,” teacher Carol Huben said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Teachers haven’t received explicit instruction about what subject they’re going to teach.”

Efforts to reach Paulo Freire’s Executive Director Gilbert Traverso and board of trustees President Kevin Dumpson were unsuccessful. Dumpson has previously denied any anti-union actions by the school, saying that the board and school administration “strongly support the work of unions.”

Union activists say the school’s decision to let go of the majority of teachers in June — in addition to two teachers who resigned and another who declined a lower-paid, non-teaching job — has led to confusion ahead of the school year.

Huben said that normally, department heads are tasked with supporting teachers as they design their class curriculum — but all but one department head was let go this year.

“We have some teachers starting who have never taught before,” Huben said.

The charter school, which was created by the same co-founders as the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, enrolled 263 students last year, according to state data. It draws students from Holyoke, South Hadley, Chicopee, West Springfield and Westfield. The school began in Holyoke, but moved to the former Pope Francis Catholic High School building in Chicopee in 2019. It is named after the leftist Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

Only a handful of the state’s charter schools are unionized. Employees at Paulo Freire unionized in March 2020 and those at the PVPA announced their union in early 2018, both with Holyoke-based UAW Local 2322.

In November, staff at the PVPA reached their first contract with the school. Paulo Freire staff remain without a first contract, and already the Paulo Freire union has filed dozens of charges against the school alleging that school officials have not bargained in good faith and have committed other labor violations.

On Jan. 13, an investigator with the state Department of Labor Relations found probable cause to believe that the school committed 22 separate labor violations alleged by the union on Oct. 6, 2020. The school, through its lawyer Marc Terry, has denied those charges. UAW 2322 organizer Elizabeth Webb said the charges are scheduled for a state hearing next month.

The state’s investigator found probable cause to believe that the school broke labor law on numerous occasions since the school’s union formed, according to a copy of the investigation’s conclusions on the department’s website.

The 22 charges include allegations that:

The school failed to bargain in good faith by not providing necessary information to the union.

School officials retaliated against union members for actions protected under law, up to terminating a teacher.

The school implemented working conditions unilaterally, refusing to bargain with the union over subjects including health and safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Huben said the union debated whether to file those charges, but that the school told the union that if it thought the school broke the law it should file charges.

“They’ve been spending a lot of money on legal fees,” Huben said. “We did not want to file charges. We just wanted the problem to be fixed … We want to be collaborative.”

The union has filed a separate spate of charges over the June termination of 13 teachers, in addition to other allegations that the school retaliated against union members, refused to bargain, and unilaterally changed employees’ working conditions.

In April, the Paulo Freire board of trustees Treasurer Phylis Gedeon accused teachers of only doing the bare minimum of what is expected, according to the board’s minutes. Minutes of an April meeting of the board’s Governance Committee state that “cultural shifts need to be made,” that “we have a socially unconscious environment” and that “new hires will be pursued.” The school employs the “full-time equivalent” of 21.2 teachers, according to the state education department.

Union leaders have rejected those accusations. In a July letter to the editor published in the Gazette, former school principal Kira Jewett said she was saddened to see that teachers “who poured their hearts into PFSJ’s students” were being let go.

“Perhaps there are improvements to be made in teaching, but how is it justice for a new executive director to give them only one, strange pandemic year to improve and prove themselves?” Jewett wrote.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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