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Published in Print: September 11, 2002, as Labor Board Rules In Charter Union Dispute

Labor Board Rules In Charter Union Dispute

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A charge of unfair labor practices filed against an Arizona charter school could break legal ground that may, eventually, make it easier for charter school employees to form unions.

A judge for the National Labor Relations Board ruled this summer that C.I. Wilson Academy in Phoenix violated federal labor laws when it dismissed employees at a charter school after they threatened to unionize.

William L. Schmidt, an administrative-law judge with the NLRB, wrote in the July 31 decision that the charter school acted more like a private corporation that contracts with the state to provide services, and that under federal law, employees of such companies are allowed to unionize or discuss the possibility of doing so with co-workers. Charter schools are publicly financed but largely independent.

Judge Schmidt ordered academy officials to reinstate the three employees who were fired and pay them back wages. He also ordered the charter operators to drop a lawsuit against one of the fired employees and a fourth employee who was forced to quit.

The decision could set "a remarkable precedent," said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "As charters grow, we're going to see more conflicts like this."

"It's huge," said Cynthia L. Best, a lawyer representing the employees. "It's the only case in the nation where the NLRB says it has jurisdiction in a charter school, and the first time the NLRB has made the decision that a charter school is a private entity."

Researchers have estimated that, nationally, perhaps a quarter of charter school teachers belong to unions, and a smaller number are represented by unions in collective bargaining. Indeed, one of the attractions for many teachers is that charter schools are largely free from the restrictions of contracts. But that may change as the charter movement evolves and working conditions grow as an issue.

The NLRB decision involved four employees: 5th grade teacher William E. Safriet, cook Mary Cisneros, school secretary Mary Ellen Ochoa, and school nurse Traci Huff.

According to Judge Schmidt's decision, the employees stated that they were intimidated and harassed by the school's founder, Charles I. Wilson III, and his wife, Evelyn Wilson, who was the school's chief executive officer and corporate secretary. The NLRB decision deals with issues that arose early in the 2000-01 school year.

Steven G. Biddle, a labor lawyer consulting with the law firm that represents the school, said the school was appealing the decision. He said the employees were fired for reasons not related to unionization.

"This is just the beginning stages of this case," Mr. Biddle said. "There is overwhelming evidence that there was no mismanagement."

Staff Complaints

The situation at C.I. Wilson Academy gets complicated in a hurry, as it involves several issues beyond the NLRB ruling.

Since May, the state has withheld 10 percent of the school's federal funding because of noncompliance with federal financial-disclosure rules and special education laws, said Tara Teicheraeber, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education. The school has 306 students in grades K-8 this year, she said.

In addition, the four employees have filed a separate discrimination lawsuit against the school—now pending in federal court—that also alleges mismanagement by the school's operators. The school, which was founded in April 1999, primarily serves minority students from low-income families.

The employees charge that the Wilsons and other school officials discriminated against them and other white and Hispanic employees, and they level a host of misconduct charges against the school management.

They charge that they were paid less and given fewer classroom resources than were African- American teachers, many of whom were relatives of the Wilsons.

Eventually, at the suggestion of the school's attendance clerk, Margaret Gonzales Ramirez, several employees began talking of unionization, according to NLRB documents. Ms. Ramirez testified to the NRLB that the Wilsons soon isolated her and told her not to communicate with other employees. She quit shortly afterward.

Also, according to the court documents, the teachers claim that they never received raises allotted by the state, that enrollments were inflated to gain more state per-pupil funds, and that Mr. Safriet, Ms. Cisneros, and Ms. Ochoa were fired, and Ms. Huff resigned under pressure, according to the documents.

In the court documents, the school officials said the employees were disgruntled and did not address their complaints in a constructive manner. Mr. Biddle said that Judge Schmidt had ignored Mr. Wilson's testimony, and that the employees' claims were ungrounded.

The employees, Mr. Biddle said, were fired for disloyalty: "They were calling parents and making disparaging remarks, and parents were pulling students out of the school."

Vol. 22, Issue 2, Page 3

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