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All Eyes Are On The Bricolage Academy Union Vote — A Big Moment For New Orleans Charter Schools

Aubri Juhasz
Bricolage Academy educators and supporters rally at Pagoda Café on N Dorgenois St. before Friday's union vote. May 28, 2021.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the city’s teachers union was the largest in Louisiana. After the storm the state seized temporary control of the district, eventually turning it into the almost all-charter system we have today. Most of the teachers were dismissed and the union hasn’t had much power since then.

Today, New Orleans charter schools have two paths to unionization — voluntary recognition by school management or a formal election protected by U.S. labor law.

The first path requires that management willingly come to the table. That rarely happens, so union organizers often end up pursuing path number two.

That’s where things stand right now for teachers at Bricolage Academy on Esplanade Avenue.

They will decide whether to form a union in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Voting opened today at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 10:30 a.m.

Those in favor of the union insist collective bargaining is key to ensuring Bricolage’s future. The other side argues the exact opposite.

“As board members we really are committed to ensuring the best long-term health and interest of Bricolage Academy,” Yvette Jones, chair of Bricolage’s school board, said at a meeting earlier this week. “We did let the process unfold organically. Now the matter will be decided by those to whom it most matters, the teachers who are part of this bargaining unit.”

When teachers announced their bid for union recognition in March, Jones and the school’s CEO Troave’ Profice both said they thought the move was ill advised. Since then Profice has left the school and an interim CEO, Bricolage Middle School Principal Antigua Wilbern, has been selected.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, several members said they wanted Wilbern to be able to work “unencumbered” and suggested now was not a good time for teachers to unionize.

Bricolage parent Tania Castellanos supports unionization and told board members having a teacher’s union would be beneficial.

“A CEO can come in and change the rules at any point. They can change salaries, they can change rules, they can change someone's job,” Castellanos said. “I think that it's very important for teachers to not feel at the mercy of new leadership if it's going to change.”

Bricolage music teacher and union organizer Brittany Scofield agreed.

“We need to have a voice, no matter who is in charge,” Scofield said in an interview with New Orleans Public Radio. “We want to collaborate with the board and with our CEO and other administrators and having a union is going to give us a way to do that.”

Scofield has been helping organize educators at her school for the last two years. She said she expects her group, Bricolage Academy Educators United, to win Friday’s election with a supermajority of the vote.

Aubri Juhasz
Supporters of Bricolage Academy Educators United stand at Pagoda Café on N Dorgenois St. May 28, 2021.

But some of her colleagues feel differently. They see unionization as antithetical to the charter school movement.

In a video on Instagram, special education teacher Jon Palmer says he initially entertained the idea of joining a union before considering that teachers unions have previously fought against the charter system.

“I've seen pre-charter life and I’ve seen post-charter life and I want to stay with this,” Palmer says in the video. “I love the teacher accountability. We don't have a ton of red tape and things like that to work through. We give it a fair shot and then if it's not working, we fix it quickly.”

Huriya Jabbar is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and researches charter schools. She said they’ve always had a complicated relationship with teachers unions.

“It was clear that the schools needed more autonomy, and that was the kind of driving argument for charter schools, but it wasn't clear that those decisions should be made by administrators versus teachers,” Jabbar said.

She said the current union push in places like New Orleans is evidence of teachers who like charter schools and aren’t interested in dismantling them. Rather, they view organizing as a way to improve them.

Matthew Tuttle, a fifth-grade teacher at Morris Jeff Community School in Mid-City, agrees. He’s president of his school’s teachers union.

“I think the narrative that the teachers who want to unionize don't like the school or hate the school or want to hurt the school doesn't make sense to me,” Tuttle said. “If they really don't like the school, they're free to teach elsewhere.

“Instead they're saying, ‘No, I care about the school and that's why I'm sticking it out and I'm going to work to make it better.’”

Aubri Juhasz
Bricolage Academy fifth-grade teacher Harry Alper stands with his hand raised at a pro-union rally before Friday's vote. May 28, 2021.

Morris Jeff is one of two New Orleans schools with a collective bargaining agreement. The other is Benjamin Franklin High School. Three additional schools have achieved some degree of union recognition.

In a statement, Morris Jeff board member Shannon Williamson said her experience working with the union for the last four years has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Teachers and staff can feel confident their voice is heard because Morris Jeff United Educators (MJUE) serves as a bridge between school staff and school leadership,” Williamson wrote. “We are a better, stronger school community because of the open communication the collective bargaining process creates.”

Jabbar, the education researcher, says the other New Orleans-specific challenge to unionization has to do with before-the-storm and after-the-storm narratives.

She said it's unclear to what extent the city’s teachers union United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) had to do with the problems the public school system had prior to Hurricane Katrina, and yet Jabbar said they’re readily blamed.

Tuttle, the local union president, said he’s hopeful Bricolage Academy’s election will prove successful, but he doesn’t think a single vote at a single school should be given disproportionate weight.

“When you look at the history of UTNO, you see a union that had a lot of losses and a lot of losses for a very long time. But eventually, it grew into the strongest teachers union in the South,” Tuttle said.

He said in recent years unionization has been an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean it won’t change. If Bricolage Academy decides to unionize, the next step is securing a collective bargaining agreement. A process that in and of itself can be just as challenging.

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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