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Lusher: Don’t Stand By While AFT Tears Apart Your School Board & Community Can't Be Neutral In The Face of Aggressive Tactics

Over the past few months, I’ve directed plenty of criticism towards Lusher Charter School over their opposition to the unified school funding plan. At the same time, I’ve never denied that the school provides its students with an excellent education, thanks to the hard work and dedication of its teachers and staff. Although I may disagree with the administration’s position on the new funding formula, at the end of the day, I want Lusher to continue to prosper. That’s why I am deeply concerned about the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) current organizing efforts at the school and the blasé response of Lusher board members to the threat posed by the union.

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On Thursday, Lusher’s board of directors unanimously passed a resolution stating that they will remain neutral on AFT’s effort to organize teachers at their school. As board member Rachel Wisdom explained to The Advocate, “We want them to get relevant information for their decision-making and not be pushed or approached by people.”

While I appreciate the sentiment, there’s one big problem with the board’s approach: AFT doesn’t play nice in the sandbox. When it comes to organizing, intimidation and coercion are the union’s modus operandi. They also use deception and the element of surprise in an attempt to quickly pressure school officials into granting the union recognition. If a school board doesn’t automatically accede to their demands, AFT quickly turns adversarial and divisive.

Here are a few reasons why Lusher’s board members and parents shouldn’t stand idly by while the union takes over their school…

I. AFT Is Already Using Coercive & Deceptive Tactics

We’ve already seen evidence that the union has been using these unsavory tactics in their organizing drive at Lusher over the past three weeks. When the announcement was made that educators at Lusher were unionizing, AFT triumphantly proclaimed, “Teachers delivered to management a petition of union support signed by a majority of teachers, teacher assistants and other certificated staff at Lusher.”

However, subsequent statements from several teachers call into question whether a majority of them actually want a union. As Jessica Williams of The Advocate revealed in a recent article, “Some of the educators…spoke of being pulled into closets and asked to sign something they had not fully read or understood.” Williams also noted that some teachers were misled by union organizers or pressured into signing the petition:

“Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Daniel Perez did sign, but only after he was urged to do so at least three times, he said. He said organizers told him that his signature meant only that he was supporting his colleagues’ desire to form a union, not supporting UTNO, a union he said failed to stand up for children before Hurricane Katrina.”

Still others, like kindergarten teacher Erin Louviere, were left out of the discussion altogether. When Lusher’s board met last Saturday to decide whether they would recognize the union, Louviere told board members, “I was not initially approached or asked before this petition was turned into the board.”

Daniel Perez, Lusher's soccer coach and 4/5th grade social studies teacher, was pestered three times to sign the union petition.
Daniel Perez, Lusher’s winning soccer coach and 4/5th grade social studies teacher, was pestered three times to sign the union petition.

If the organizing effort had the support of a clear majority of teachers, they wouldn’t need to pressure or mislead people into signing their petition. Furthermore, if the union was so concerned about fairness, they would have ensured that everyone was included in the process.

II. AFT Is Willing To Intimidate Anyone Who Stands In Their Way

On Thursday evening, I received an email from Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana (A+PEL), a 7,500-member professional organization established as an alternative to the unions. In his email, Courville recounted a rather disturbing encounter he had with an AFT official named Audra George at Lusher’s board meeting at Loyola Law School earlier that morning:

“Today, I attended the 8:30 board meeting at Loyola Law School. Attendance was myself, Ms. George, three reporters, and about five parents. The meeting was quickly over, and afterwards myself and the parents were grouped up in the room, and started talking about everything. One of the parents asked who was the person taking pictures of us, and sure enough, Audra George was taking photos of us less than 10 feet away. She wasn’t even bothering to try to be covert about it either. My guess is that she wanted the parents to see and have photo evidence that they were speaking to me.”

If Lusher board members ever needed an argument against neutrality, here it is: Union officials are willing to use intimidation against parents who dare question their efforts to organize the school. Lusher parents should be able to speak with whomever they want, whenever they want about issues that impact the education of their children. The fact that George would even think about trying to intimidate parents is outrageous. On the other hand, it’s a preview of the type of behavior that can be expected if the union’s organizing effort is successful.

AFT's Audra George: Not as nice as she appears in this photo.
AFT’s Audra George: Not as nice as she appears in this photo.

III. Lusher Is A Pawn In A Broader AFT Strategy

In his email, Courville also revealed that Audra George aggressively confronted him at Lusher’s April 23rd board meeting to question him about mailings that A+PEL had sent to teachers:

“[S]he introduced herself and asked if I was the one responsible for the mailers and ‘union drop form’ which guides a teacher through the written process of opting out of a union. She told me the form was not valid (we’ve used it across the state actually), and I asked her why she wasn’t willing to accept a signed and written statement of a union member, and as we were getting into it a friend appeared and the conversation settled down. I was actually surprised she introduced herself as it revealed what many of us had been saying all along, that there was a National Union Representative pushing and organizing these schools.”

To be clear, Audra George isn’t some low-level union organizer. She serves as National Representative for Organization and Field Services at AFT and is well-compensated for it. According to AFT’s 2015 annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor, George earned more than $234,000 in her role in F.Y. 2015.

From AFT's 2015 Annual Report.
From AFT’s 2015 Annual Report.

What’s more, George doesn’t even live in Louisiana. She commutes to New Orleans each week from Texas, courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers. In fact, AFT’s 2015 Department of Labor report also reveals that the union owed her almost $20,000 in reimbursement expenses as of June 30th of last year to cover her proselytizing efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere.

The fact that a senior AFT official is involved in organizing at Lusher suggests that the effort is part of a broader campaign by AFT to infiltrate New Orleans’ charter schools. It isn’t a coincidence that AFT and the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) launched another organizing push this past week at International High School of New Orleans. Moreover, as I documented in a recent post, the American Federation of Teachers spent $500,000 on organizing efforts in New Orleans last year. When taken together, it raises the question of whether this organizing effort is really about issues at Lusher or whether AFT is simply exploiting a few malcontents on staff to expand their power and influence in the city.

IV: Union Drama Distracts From Lusher’s Focus: Educating Kids

Finally, let’s be real about something: This isn’t Harlan County, U.S.A.

Lusher’s board and administration are not evil plutocrats and the school’s teachers are not exploited, unskilled laborers. To hear some of the rhetoric coming from the people leading this organizing fight, you would think that Lusher’s educators live in constant fear of losing their jobs. You would also think that those in charge at the school are so unreasonable that they’re unwilling to address the legitimate concerns of staff members, leaving them with no other choice but to unionize.

Forgive me, but I find that hard to believe. The only things I’ve ever heard from Lusher teachers and parents I know is how fortunate they feel to be part of that school community. Of course, issues and problems will inevitably arise, but I’ve seen zero evidence to suggest that things have gotten so bad that teachers need to bring in a union – along with the political baggage and drama that goes with it – in order to resolve them.

When all is said and done, if the organizing effort is successful, the only thing the union will have gained is the right to negotiate with the board. That’s it. That’s the only tangible benefit that this divisive process will have accomplished. The board is not obligated to agree to any of the demands that are now being bandied about as reasons for organizing. Union supporters need to ask themselves whether it’s worth creating divisions among teachers and rancor among parents for so little. Lusher community members need to ask themselves whether they want AFT, a third party with its own agenda, coming into their school and trying to run the show.

Throughout this entire union debate, one very important question has been all but ignored: How does this benefit students? If Lusher takes its focus off kids, it doesn’t bode well for the future.

Background on AFT’s Efforts in New Orleans:

AFT Is Lurking In The Shadows

The New Orleans education community was taken by surprise on Monday, when the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced that educators at Lusher Charter School had formed a union. An AFT press release on the move stated: “Educators at Lusher made public their commitment to stand together as the United Teachers of Lusher, an affiliate of the United Teachers of New Orleans and the American Federation of Teachers.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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