PVPA teachers and staff unionize

  • The Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, located on Mulligan Drive in South Hadley. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 2/14/2018 9:44:32 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Faculty and staff at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School have officially unionized, becoming one of only a few unionized charter schools in the state.

On Feb. 8, the state’s Department of Labor approved the faculty and staff’s petition to unionize with Local 2322 of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, or UAW. That decision makes the school only the third charter school out of 80 operating in the state — and the first in the Pioneer Valley — to unionize, according to a spokeswoman for the state’s education department.

“Unions have a long history of empowering workers in our country and around the world, and we are eager to bring the benefits of collective bargaining to our PVPA community,” high school math teacher Elmo Wright, a member of the bargaining committee, said in a statement.

Only around 10 percent of charter schools nationwide are unionized, according to the pro-charter group Center for Education Reform. But most of those unionized charter schools are in California, where schools that switch from a traditional public model to a charter school kept union contracts in place, said the group’s president and CEO, Jeanne Allen. She puts the percentage of U.S. charter schools that have unionized outside of prior arrangements at “well below 5 percent.”

Charter proponents say the lack of unions allows them more “flexibility” to fire and hire teachers, and to change programs quickly without the burden of adhering to a union contract. Critics, however, have said that flexibility comes at the expense of teacher paychecks, work-life balance and voice in the workplace, and teachers unions have criticized charter schools as union-busting operations.

“Unions give all workers valuable protections and a voice at the table,” Freja Joslin and Karin Kayser, both PVPA teachers and elected members of the union bargaining committee, said in a statement. “Unions are fundamentally a way for workers to come together, to increase our voice and allow us to have fairness in our workplace. That makes just as much sense for charter school employees as it does for anyone else who works for a living.”

Melinda Winter, president of the PVPA board of trustees, pledged to seek a cooperative relationship with the union.

“We respect the teachers’ right to organize a bargaining unit and we will work closely with them to ensure a fair contract that allows PVPA to continue to fulfill its mission to provide a well-rounded, high quality education for our students,” Winter said in a statement.

PVPA employees aren’t the only charter school workers in the state looking to unionize. On Wednesday, two City on a Hill charter schools in Roxbury announced their decision to unionize with the Boston Teachers Union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Charter schools in MA are public schools, and in Massachussetts all public school teachers are unionized,” Joslin and Kayser said. “We want the same benefits and protections as those public school employees and this will allow us to support our students while also providing the innovative education our charter allows.”

Large traditional teachers unions, however, have a somewhat conflicted relationship with charter schools.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, for example, views charter schools as siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from state school districts with no local oversight, and failing to serve high-need students. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has said charter school expansion decimates public education, though her union has increased efforts to unionize charter schools. So too as has the National Education Association, of which the MTA is an affiliate.

“We stand in solidarity and support of our fellow public school colleagues — at both traditional and charter schools,” PVPA’s Joslin and Kayser said. “As charter schools become more similar to traditional public schools — the way teachers are evaluated and with standardized state tests — among other regulations, it makes sense that charter school workers have the same protections and opportunities.”

Attempts to reach MTA president Barbara Madeloni on Wednesday were unsuccessful because she was traveling.

Local 2322, based in Holyoke, represents 27 other bargaining units in western Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, including including graduate students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, housekeepers at Mount Holyoke College and teachers and staff at the New Directions School.

“The workers at PVPA were concerned about their working conditions, including not having input regarding the issues that were most important to themselves, their students, and their school,” said Jocelyn Silverlight, the president of Local 2322. “They decided that in order to have a voice, they wanted to form a union.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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