The Uphill Battle of Unionizing a Philly Charter School

Sean Kitchen/ Raging Chicken Press

Teachers from Olney Charter High School in Philadelphia rally at the Pennsylvania headquarters of ASPIRA, a national charter school operator, on April 30.  

On April 30th, faculty at North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted 104-38 in favor of forming a union, an NLRB election that Olney’s charter operator, ASPIRA, has since announced they’re challenging. Olney’s union campaign is only the latest in a small but rapidly growing wave of charter union drives nationwide. But few efforts have been as contentious, or as revealing, as this one. Ever since the campaign began three years ago, ASPIRA has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into an elaborate union-busting effort, even as the beleaguered district it’s funded by struggles with massive debt. Unionizing Olney also threatens to shine light on ASPIRA’s questionable finances, at a time when authorities at the state and district level have failed to act. More broadly, the union drive in Philadelphia reveals how charter management organizations can use lax regulation to dodge financial accountability.

ASPIRA took over Olney, along with John B. Stetson Middle School in 2011 through Philadelphia’s “renaissance” school turnaround project, whereby charter operators are given the opportunity to improve the academic performance of struggling district schools. As part of the renaissance conversion, remaining educators at Olney and Stetson lost their union membership.

It wasn’t easy for Olney staff to reach their April 30th election; for the past three years they have dealt with an administration intent on suppressing union organizing efforts. Tactics have included threatening teachers with layoffs and cuts to benefits, putting anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, and instating new discipline policies, which included barring employees from criticizing ASPIRA on social media. The NLRB sided with educators in three of the four unfair labor practice complaints they filed in response to these measures.

Other tactics that have garnered criticism, including from Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez—who once served as ASPIRA’s Executive Director—relate to services ASPIRA has employed, with public dollars, to fight the union effort. In August 2014, Philadelphia City Paper reported that ASPIRA paid a law firm with experience in fighting unionization efforts at least $72,163. This past April, the chair of the Olney school board signed a contract with consultants to lead self-described “union avoidance” meetings for Olney staff, as well as to help ASPIRA design and implement a campaign to fight unionization. The cost for these consultants was $25,000 and the contract stipulated that that figure “does not include any time that may be spent in responding or defending any charges filed by the union at the NLRB.”

Stetson educators recently launched their own organizing drive, and ASPIRA is sending consultants and lawyers there, too. Moreover, ASPIRA sent their consultants to lead a mandatory meeting at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, another one of ASPIRA’s five charters, to reportedly “pre-empt an organizing effort.”

The budget problems plaguing Philadelphia public schools have forced the district to close dozens of schools, to lay off thousands of workers, to reduce transportation services, and more. How then, do we get to a point where charters are able to spend such significant sums of public dollars to fight union efforts? Who, if anyone, gets to have a say?

Are Charter Employees Public or Private?

Charters, which have been around for a quarter century, are publicly funded but independently managed schools. In education circles there’s a fierce debate over whether these schools are truly “public”—charter proponents insist that they are, while others see charters as a means to privatize education.

Aside from whether charter schools are public or private, another question is whether charter school employees are public or private—important distinctions not only for union formation but also for labor rights more broadly. The courts have taken the position that there is no clear-cut answer for charter employees, and each situation must be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on individual state laws and regulations, as well as the composition of each charter organization. But in one significant case from 2012, the NLRB ruled that educators at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy Charter School (CMSA) were private employees mainly because no government entity has the authority to appoint or remove CMSA board members, and no board members are directly accountable to public officials. In 2013, citing the CMSA ruling, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board effectively disclaimed jurisdiction over charter labor disputes in the state, concluding that such matters should be dealt with at the NLRB.

Which brings us back to Olney and Stetson. Despite previously stating that it would respect the results of an NLRB election, ASPIRA now claims Olney teachers are in fact public employees, and thus not subject to the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Stetson educators also recently filed for their own union election and ASPIRA challenged them, too. While the NLRB held a regional hearing and determined that Stetson educators are in fact covered under the NLRB, no determination has yet been made for Olney educators. However, since the legal arguments are the same for both renaissance schools, one can assume that the NLRB will ultimately uphold jurisdiction.

Many view ASPIRA’s NLRB challenge as a stalling tactic, but their action is not illegal. Wilma Liebman, a former chairman of the NLRB, told me that jurisdiction challenges are permitted at any stage of the election process. But considering that ASPIRA has not dropped their Olney challenge despite losing their Stetson one, many wonder how far ASPIRA will go before they agree to collectively bargain, and how expensive the legal bills are going to be.

In theory, if the regional NLRB rules in favor of Olney educators, ASPIRA could appeal to the national NLRB board in Washington, D.C. If ASPIRA loses all possible appeals, and they still refuse to bargain, then the NLRB will have to take them to District Court. Such cases are extremely expensive. “If they still refuse to bargain past a District Court ruling, then they’d be found in contempt,” said Liebman.

Other Questionable ASPIRA Expenditures

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances. Over the past several years, evidence suggests that ASPIRA has engaged in other instances of questionable financial behavior. The Philadelphia Daily News found that ASPIRA has borrowed nearly $3.5 million from its charter schools, though the public doesn’t know where that money went. Journalists also found that school staff used debit cards without providing receipts, and that bank loans were signed where one charter school would guarantee the debt of another. Under the law, each charter is supposed to function as an independent entity.

Lauren Thum of the Philadelphia School District’s Charter Office told Newsworks that the district couldn’t confirm whether ASPIRA is spending its charter school dollars in the schools themselves, or whether money is being siphoned off for other things. Part of the complication stems from the fact that although each of ASPIRA’s five charters is organized as an independent nonprofit, they all share the same board of trustees through their parent organization, ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. And although the school district worries that ASPIRA charters may be improperly shuffling money around, they have thus far been denied access to the parent organization’s financial records. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entitles, and money flowing throughout them,” Thum said. In the meantime, ASPIRA continues to deny any financial wrongdoing. ASPIRA also declined to be interviewed and several school board members did not return requests for comment.

In 2010, the Philadelphia City Controller released a report criticizing a practice common amongst Philly charters whereby the schools use public funds to pay rent to parent organizations or subsidiaries; this is what ASPIRA does with ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. "Properties that are being paid for with taxpayer funds are being either transferred [to] or controlled by nonprofits with no accountability to the school district or taxpayers," the report concluded. However, five years later, the practice continues.

Under the law, unions are entitled to see the financial information that pertains to their bargaining unit. (This includes things like health insurance costs, salaries, etc.) And if during negotiations management shoots down a union’s proposal by claiming they have an inability to pay, then the union is legally entitled to access more financial information to verify management’s claim. “In my opinion, I think the real issue is ASPIRA doesn’t want a union poking around in their finances,” a Philadelphia School District official told me. “Having a union gives them the right to do that in order to bargain in good faith, and [ASPIRA] doesn’t want anyone looking at anything.”

And so far, no one really has. As millions of dollars move around between the charter schools, the parent organization, and ASPIRA’s two property-management entities, the school district’s ability to challenge ASPIRA’s financial behavior remains unclear. In January, the district sent a letter to ASPIRA outlining 17 conditions the nonprofit would need to meet if they want to have their Stetson charter renewed. Conditions include reorganizing Stetson’s school board so that the parent organization doesn’t directly control it and getting a treasurer with a background in finances and audits.

Since then, ASPIRA has complied with some of the district’s requests, and has challenged others. Notably, they have so far refused to provide access to relevant financial information of its parent organization, though conversations between ASPIRA and the district are still ongoing.

“Nobody has enough power or enough money to really stay on top of things, so it becomes really easy for things to end up in a big mess,” said Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University Law School professor who studies Pennsylvania charter law. “I frankly don’t think the state legislature thought ahead about the financial ramifications in any serious way. It’s [as] if everyone thought ‘oh this is a great idea, oh there will be cool new schools.’”

A Need for Greater Oversight

ASPIRA’s accountability problem is similar at the district level. “We just don’t have time right now to oversee [all that] we’re supposed to oversee,” the Philadelphia district official told me, who added that they need far more resources and manpower to do comprehensive charter investigations. And, as the situation with ASPIRA suggests, perhaps school districts need to be granted explicitly clearer legal authority to track where charter dollars go. Though charters are premised on a model of increased accountability, the public, as it stands, is unable to hold these schools accountable.

Beyond tracking the unclear money, what about the costs that are clear, like the lawyers and consultants? When I asked David Lapp, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center whether the school district could protest ASPIRA spending public dollars to fight a union he said it would be unusual, though not necessarily illegal. “Generally speaking, the charter authorizer, which in Pennsylvania is the school district, has the general duty to oversee that charter schools are following the law,” he said. “I’ve never seen a school district give any sort of opinion to a charter school about labor law issues, but whether they could seems to be an open question.”

Regardless, as ASPIRA will find, there’s only so long that an employer can delay negotiating with a staff that’s committed to forming a union. 

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