By Kimbery Crane
Most public school employees would not describe their workplace as having elements of international intrigue. But if members of the newly affiliated Community Charter Education Association (CCEA) made that claim, they would not be far from the truth.
CCEA members work in the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology (PCSST)—a corporate charter run by the Gülen Movement.
PCSST is the largest charter school in Passaic County with approximately 1,000 students.
Gülen-managed charter schools are difficult to unionize because of several factors. Employees are often tied to the Gülen Movement through their religious beliefs or cultural affiliations. Former employees report that the movement does not encourage the organization of their charter school employees. Retaliation for such activity is reported to be consistent and swift, ending with the job termination of potential activists.
Fighting fear of reprisal, CCEA members began the affiliation process in 2015 after a majority of school employees signed union cards requesting to organize as a bargaining unit.
Region 27 UniServ Field Representative Sasha Wolfe organized the local.
“Because of an immense fear of retaliation, they organized without management knowing, “said Wolf. “People thought it couldn’t be done. They did it. They stood up for themselves, and they won.”
Shawn Ziem stepped up to become the president of PCEA. He has worked as a PCSST physical education and driver’s education teacher for the last 11 years. Ziem cited several factors—particularly regarding poor working conditions—that moved PCSST staff to unionize.
“People were uneasy about things,” said Ziem. “A well-respected colleague was fired and people were concerned about that. Administration, however, seemed comfortable with the way things were run.”
According to reports from a few vocal PCEA members, administrators became agitated when questioned about past practices in the district prior to unionization.
Adding to the discontent were home visits with students’ parents that were perceived as mandatory—the results of which were included in employee evaluations. Staff meetings were long, and there was little transparency in how the school was run.
After a majority of employees signed their green cards, some administrators continued to speak negatively about having a union in their school. There were reports of closed-door meetings with employees who were not on board with being part of a union. A policy was developed that did not allow PCEA members to wear association supportive pins or logos. The anti-union employees were not held to the same standard and at times displayed anti-union propaganda.
Ziem reports that the school climate and relationship with administration has improved since 2015.
“We talk more now and they are making attempts to work with us for the betterment of our school,” Ziem said. “We all have the same goal—to make PCSST the best school it can possibly be for students.”
This year the local association ratified its first contract. Now members are looking forward to expanding their PRIDE program and reaching out to the community to promote public education initiatives.
“PCEA members were overjoyed and experienced a great sense of fulfillment,” Ziem said of the contract ratification vote. “After all they have gone through, they had finally made a difference in their workplace.”
“Because of an immense fear of retaliation, they organized without management knowing. People thought it couldn’t be done. They did it. They stood up for themselves, and they won.”
– NJEA UniServ Field Rep Sasha Wolf
Charter schools are not created equal. If you are considering applying for employment in a charter, it is important to know which of New Jersey’s charter schools are unionized, who manages the institution, and whether the board of trustees is elected through an open transparent process involving a broad spectrum of stakeholders or appointed by the founders.
The missions of charters with local founders and accountable boards often hold true to the original ideology behind the charter movement—to play an important role as laboratories of innovation that provide choices for students and their parents in addition to the offerings of the traditional district.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of corporate, nonprofit and for-profit, charter management companies that are disconnected from their schools’ communities. The climate in these institutions is often hierarchal and noncollaborative. Most have boards of trustees or chairpersons appointed by the founders and solicit very little input from taxpayers or staff.
An increase in the misuse of funds, unacceptable working conditions, and lack of appropriate materials for students is seen more often under the direction of companies that are disconnected from the local community.
Many times, these corporations oversee the management and finances of their charter schools from headquarters that are located in other states or countries overseas. Some are inseparably intertwined with religious groups or political movements that are favorably, or unfavorably, viewed in their country of origin.
NJEA Organizational Development Representative Marguerite Schroeder noted the power that comes from educators organizing themselves into a union.
“Their hard work provides their colleagues with collective bargaining, representation, protection, and perhaps most importantly, a voice,” Schroeder said. “I congratulate the Paterson Charter Education Association’s members and leaders on their affiliation and continuing advocacy for the betterment of their school.”
To find out more about charter schools represented by NJEA visit njea.org/charters.
To get information on how you can become an NJEA Public Charter School Member contact Marguerite Schroeder firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kimberly Crane is an NJEA Communications Consultant and a former president and current vice president of the Highland Park Education Association.