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Bricolage Academy Board Considers Teachers Union Petition, Adjourns Meeting Without A Vote

Aubri Juhasz
Bricolage Academy is housed in the historic John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. Mar. 1, 2021.

Bricolage Academy’s newly formed teachers union presented its case for formal recognition to the school’s board of directors Wednesday afternoon.

After hearing from teachers both for and against unionization, board members gathered for an executive session with legal counsel that lasted more than an hour.

Following the session, the meeting was adjourned without further discussion or indication of the board’s next steps.

Earlier in the meeting, Board Chair Yvette Jones framed the issue as one lacking swift resolution and stressed the role of board members as “stewards for public assets.”

“As such, we must move deliberately and carefully when confronted with a complex issue like this and one that has legal and financial implications,” Jones said.

Wednesday was the first time board members gathered to discuss the potential of unionization and collective bargaining at the school.

Jones said the school board and leadership were “surprised” when the union, Bricolage Academy Educators United (BAE), delivered its petition for voluntary recognition on Feb. 24.

“Since that time, we've been trying to understand what it means for the school as a whole and most importantly, what it means for our students and families,” Jones said. “As a board, we have to do our due diligence on this very important legal matter.”

Teachers Make Case For And Against Union Representation

More than 100 people attended Wednesday’s virtual board meeting, with some showing support for the union by changing their screen name to include “Friend of BAE.”

Three Bricolage teachers spoke in support of the union, Emily Alverson, Brittany Scofield and Annabelle Williamson. One teacher, Brittany Rose Michael, spoke against unionization.

Alverson, a first-grade teacher said during her first year teaching at Bricolage in 2014 she worked long hours and weekends.

It wasn’t until she moved to New York to get her master’s degree and began working at schools with recognized teachers unions that she realized teachers didn’t have to “work themselves to death.”

“Working in union schools taught me to expect to have my time and expertise respected,” Alverson said.

When she returned to Bricolage in 2018, she said, the problems she originally experienced were still there.

“I love working here, but there are still a lot of problems even when it is a great place,” Alverson said. “It's not the school it can be. It has a great resource it's not even using, the expertise and wisdom of its staff.”

Alverson said she’s seen coworkers fired without warning because it “was convenient” and that the school continues to have an unhealthy hustle culture.

“You come in early and you stay late and you say thanks for the opportunity to do it,” Alverson said. “There are people in this building right now without lunch breaks, who don't know if anyone is going to come for their next bathroom break.”

Alverson also said the school needs to address pay disparities across race and gender and ensure teachers are fairly compensated for the work they perform.

Spanish teacher Annabelle Williamson described her time at Bricolage as filled with broken promises.

“I was hired with the promise of teaching middle school scholars 45 minutes of Spanish per day for their entire middle school career. I was hired with the promise of receiving coaching and feedback on a weekly basis. I was hired with a rock star middle school team. We were unstoppable three years ago,” Williamson said.

Since then, Williamson said feedback and coaching have steadily dropped off and staffing has been inconsistent.

She’s worked with a brand new team of teachers each year and while she said each team has been stronger than the last, the turnover has been confusing for students.

“We spent the first month reassuring [students] that last year’s team of teachers didn't leave because of them,” Williamson said. “This was not their fault, which is something they were convinced of.”

This year, Williamson said she also serves as the department’s co-curricular coach, a job that was handled by two part-time teachers last year. She said she receives a $1,000 stipend for this work, whereas last year’s teachers received $3,000 each.

“This year I'm coaching [eight] teachers in addition to teaching fifth, sixth and seventh grade,” Williamson said. “I was told that a new Spanish teacher was being hired this year. They were not hired.”

Right now, Williamson said she sees her students 45 minutes a week, rather than the 45 minutes each school day she was promised.

“I want collective bargaining because I want equity,” Williamson said. “It's what I tell my kids every single day. It's what they deserve and they're watching me. They're also watching all of us.”

While BAE has framed unionization as something teachers are largely in favor of, Brittany Rose Michael, a first and second-grade reading interventionist, told board members some employees have been “intentionally” left out of the conversation.

“I'm just here merely to state that the majority is not on board,” Michael said. “I know that it appears that they have the numbers, but I also know that many of the people who signed that petition have also signed the petition that I have started that is for an independent Bricolage.”

The petition delivered by BAE to the school’s board of directors requesting recognition was signed by more than 80 percent of eligible employees, according to those involved in the process.

Michael said while that may be true, she believes many people did not understand what they were signing.

“I'm not here to say that I'm against the union,” Michael said. “I'm basically here to just say we don't know enough about this and we just want to be a part of the conversation.”

Michael said she believes the best way for teachers to improve workplace issues is to work directly with school leadership, and not through “third parties” enforcing “restrictive, expensive collective bargaining contracts.”

“This is a huge decision that will forever change the school,” Michael said. “We should not rush this.”

In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio after the meeting, Bricolage music teacher and board member Brittany Scofield pushed back on Michael’s characterization of events.

“This is something that has been worked on for years … so I was really surprised to hear that she thought this was rushed,” Scofield said.

If they took unionization to a formal vote, Scofield said she’s confident a majority of teachers would vote yes.

“An important part of organizing is doing constant gut checks with people,” Scofield said. “I know that we do still have the support.”

Scofield said she found Michael’s argument that unions are third parties to be “anti-union propaganda, plain and simple,” and said formally joining the city’s teacher’s union, United Teachers for New Orleans (UTNO), will give teachers more power, not less.

“Unions are not third parties, unions are the workers,” Scofield said. “When we win collective bargaining it will not be UTNO making the decisions, it will be the people making the decisions. They don’t push us around.”

Bricolage Teachers Offered Extended Job Contracts

Teachers who return to Bricolage for the coming academic year will be offered three-year work agreements instead of the customary one-year agreement, Bricolage Academy CEO Troave’ Profice said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“This improved agreement will ensure that their employment at Bricolage remains as long as their performance remains satisfactory and their funding for their position remains in place,” Profice said.

Scofield, the music teacher, said teachers were informed of the change about a week after the union’s petition for recognition was submitted.

“I think that it is in response to that, which is great,” Scofield said. “Of course we want that type of job security. That's why we want collective bargaining. But without collective bargaining, an agreement like that is just an agreement. It's not a legally binding contract.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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