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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.

NOLA

Peeking Behind The Curtain… Thirteen years after Katrina, UTNO is still a shadow of its former self

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The United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) was once the largest union local in Louisiana and a powerful force in local politics. That changed thirteen years ago, when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, killed nearly 1,000 residents, and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the city’s perennially-failing public school system was in complete disarray. After decades of corruption and mismanagement, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) was essentially bankrupt and board members were unable to set aside their differences to effectively respond to the crisis. The state soon moved to takeover nearly all of the city’s public schools and put them under the oversight of the Recovery School District (RSD). As a result, the school board had little choice but to layoff nearly 7,600 of its employees in September 2005.

Within months, UTNO’s membership had plummeted more than 90 percent, from approximately 4,700 members before Katrina to only 300 in the spring of 2006. It was a blow from which the union has never recovered.

UTNO had approximately 4,700 members before Katrina; by May 2006, the union had only 300 members left.

As the city embarked on a radical transformation of the school system, there was little interest among educators in reviving UTNO, an organization which many viewed as part of the problem before the storm. Lacking support, UTNO largely faded from public view, while relying on its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to subsidize its operations.

However, over the past five years, UTNO’s fortunes have gotten a shot in the arm, as AFT has taken an aggressive stance against charter schools and has sought to discredit and undermine the success of New Orleans’ charter-driven school reforms,

According to its annual reports to the U.S. Department of Labor, AFT steered more than $2.3 million to UTNO between F.Y. 2012 and F.Y. 2017 to underwrite organizing efforts in New Orleans charter schools. Yet in spite of this infusion of cash, the results of these efforts have been mixed.

Since 2015, UTNO has launched organizing drives at five local charters, but only two of those schools – Ben Franklin High School and Morris Jeff Community School – have voluntarily recognized the union. Meanwhile, a contentious push to organize Lusher Charter School was ultimately voted down by teachers, while UTNO’s attempts to organize International High School and Mary D. Coghill have stalled due to legal challenges.

UTNO’s effort to organize teachers at Lusher was ultimately voted down.

Where do things stand with UTNO today?

To get some idea about UTNO’s current strength, I recently took a look at campaign finance reports from UTNO’s Committee on Political Education (COPE), which is a fancy name for its political action committee. Most AFT affiliates, like UTNO, have associated COPE PACs, which are funded through voluntary contributions made by members. As opposed to super PACs, which can engage in unlimited independent spending, COPEs can only make direct contributions to candidates of up to $2,500.

UTNO COPE’s 2017 annual Committee Report, which the union submitted to the Louisiana Board of Ethics in February of this year, is of particular interest. First of all, it reveals that UTNO has been rather sloppy when it comes to managing its members’ COPE contributions. According to a note included in the report, the union accidentally deposited over $740 of COPE funds in the wrong bank account and didn’t realize the mistake until a year later.

The filing also reveals that UTNO can’t seem to follow basic reporting guidelines, which require PACs to identify the names of each contributor, the amount of their contribution, and the date on which those contributions were made. Instead, the union attached what appears to be a membership list to the report, which nevertheless still doesn’t indicate who contributed to UTNO COPE, nor how much they contributed.

The list itself, which I’ve reproduced below, contains the names of 592 members, many of whom are retired. Even if incomplete, the list corroborates indirect estimates of UTNO’s membership gleaned from its tax filings with the IRS, which indicate the union could have no more than 650 members.

In sum, while UTNO’s membership has rebounded somewhat since its low point immediately after Katrina, the union is still a shadow of its former self. Although AFT has poured money into organizing charter schools in the city, they clearly haven’t gotten a return on their investment. For those of us who want to see the school system move forward and build upon its successes over the past thirteen years, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.


Read UTNO COPE’s Annual Committee Report:


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Louisiana

After Janus, The Drought? LAE & LFT are downplaying the impact of the Janus v. AFSCME decision, but both are subsidized by their national unions

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The United States Supreme Court handed public sector unions – including the teachers unions – a major defeat on Wednesday with their decision in Janus v. AFSCME, in which a majority of justices agreed that mandatory agency fee laws violate the First Amendment rights of non-union public employees.

In the 21 states with agency fee laws, public employees covered by collective bargaining agreements were required to pay fees to the union to cover bargaining costs, even if they refused to join. Because agency fees only offered a small discount when compared to union dues, many individuals felt compelled to become members.

Screenshot from Education Next.

Now that the Supreme Court has struck down those laws, many observers expect that public sector unions will lose anywhere from 10-30% of their members, and by extension, a big chunk of their revenues. In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, National Education Association (NEA) president Lily Eskelsen García admitted her union expects to lose at least 200,000 members over the next 18 months, depriving them of around $28 million in funding.

What about Louisiana?

Louisiana, of course, is a right-to-work state, meaning that public sector unions here are unlikely to see a drop in their membership, but the Janus decision could have a significant financial impact on the state’s two teachers unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT).

In an article in The Advocate on Wednesday, officials from LAE and LFT sought to downplay the potential fallout from the ruling, insisting that any impact on their organizations would be minimal. They also wildly exaggerated the size of their respective unions, with both LAE and LFT claiming around 20,000 members.

LAE president Debbie Meaux and LFT president Larry Carter.

Mike Antonucci, a researcher who has been writing about teachers unions for decades, released figures on Wednesday showing that LAE had 10,461 members in 2016-17, of which only 9,416 were full dues-paying members. While precise numbers are not available for LFT, data from tax filings and public records requests show that the union receives far less in dues payments than their counterparts at LAE, while charging their members more on an annual basis. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that LFT is even smaller than LAE’s 10,000 members.

Those tax filings, along with annual reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, also reveal that both LAE and LFT are heavily subsidized by their national unions. According to tax returns, LAE reported $3,291,199 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, although Department of Labor reports show that nearly 30% of that money came from the National Education Association.

Data from IRS 990s and U.S. Department of Labor annual reports.

Likewise, LFT reported $1,809,239 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, but nearly 27% of that total came from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Moreover, as I’ve noted in previous posts, AFT also provides substantial funding to its local affiliates, like the United Teachers of New Orleans, Jefferson Federation of Teachers, and Red River United.

Will the money dry up?

Up to now, LAE and LFT could depend on their national unions to provide a substantial portion of their annual budgets, but the Supreme Court’s decision this week means that steady stream of funding could begin to dry up in the not-too-distant future. While It’s unlikely that AFT and NEA will completely cut-off subsidies to their affiliates in right-to-work states like Louisiana, there’s no escaping the fact that there will be less money to go around.

How that will ultimately impact the activities of Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers is yet to be seen.

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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