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.
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.
— AFT ACTS (@aftACTS) April 26, 2016
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.”
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.
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.
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.
— AGeorge (@AudrageorgeA) August 9, 2015
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:
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.
Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education
On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.
Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.
For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.
Dear Board Members,
In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.
On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.
Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.
These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.
In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.
Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.
Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.
If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:
- Einstein Charter Schools Deemed Noncompliant For Providing Inadequate Transportation (9/21/17)
- Einstein board prepares to fight Orleans school district over its failure to bus students (9/25/17)
- Einstein Charter Schools Push Back Against Transportation Policy (10/25/17)
- Busing dispute at Einstein schools is headed to court (11/30/17)
- School district reprimands Einstein Charter Schools for enrolling students outside OneApp (1/3/18)
- Parents, protesters picket Einstein Charter Schools over lack of busing (1/9/18)
Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.
Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA
All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers
For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.
Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.
Louisiana is ready for a new direction. https://t.co/eDLPMl5tEC
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) April 12, 2017
Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.
Unethical and possibly worse
Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.
According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.
In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…
- Although he called out sick on February 23rd, he noted in a blog post that he actually went to Baton Rouge to attend the final meeting of the Governor’s ESSA Advisory Council;
- He took sick leave on March 29th, but again mentioned on his blog that he was in Baton Rouge at a BESE meeting;
- The same goes for May 18th (he also missed May 17th), when he was “sick” in Baton Rouge to introduce House Bill 536 with State Rep. Vincent Pierre, as he wrote in a blog post ironically titled, “HB-536: Who really puts children first?”
What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.
— LAE (@LAEducators) November 16, 2016
If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.
Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.
The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) November 17, 2016
Exactly why reform is needed
When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.
In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.
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