Teachers at the New America School charter school system want to form Colorado’s first charter school union

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New School America art teacher Collette Simkins addresses fellow teachers at a rally outside the New America School’s Lakewood school.

Jaime Paterson’s charter school in Aurora hasn’t had reliable internet in six months. Her students, mostly immigrants learning English, can’t complete assignments. 

“We have absolutely been ignored and disregarded about really important issues and issues that matter to our students,” she said. She’s also concerned about the high number of staff leaving — counselors, nurses and teachers — a lack of respect, resources, and pay.

She found what she thinks is the solution in the group of teachers clad in red rallying Wednesday night outside a New America School in Lakewood. Teachers from the charter school network — it has three schools, one in Aurora, one in Thornton and the Lakewood school — want union recognition. Teachers first requested recognition in October, arguing a union is needed to improve students’ learning and teachers’ working conditions. 

The rally took place before a meeting of the charter school network’s board of directors, which must decide whether to recognize the union. The event was possibly Colorado’s first public demonstration among charter school teachers to organize. Charter school teachers are typically at-will employees without a contract or bargaining rights. There are no unionized charter schools in Colorado.

“We are here tonight to remind the board that we love the New America School,” said Collette Simkins, an art and drama teacher and one of the leaders of the unionizing effort. “We know that the school can be better because we believe to our core in the mission of NAS. And because we think a union can be an answer to the problems we face.” 

The New America School (NAS) is a system of public charter high schools that serves recent immigrants ages 14-21 who want to learn or perfect English and earn a diploma. It also serves non-traditional students, and students who need a more personalized curriculum, according to the school’s website. It was founded in 2004 by then philanthropist and educational activist Jared Polis, now the governor, along with several leaders in the metro community.

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Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, addresses teachers outside the New America School’s Lakewood school.

Teachers rally, speak out

School administrators told teachers they couldn’t rally in front of the Lakewood school, so teachers moved into the parking lot. A handful of New America School teachers waved signs that read “Teacher Voice, Student Justice” as they marched under gray skies around the parking lot, chanting “You left us no choice! We have to use our teacher voice!” They were joined by a few dozen teachers from other Jefferson County schools who are members of the Jefferson County Education Association.

NAS special education teacher Hugo Hernandez said many NAS teachers weren’t at the rally because they are afraid of retaliation. But organizers report that a supermajority of teachers, 77 percent, support the NAS Educators United union.

 Simkins said she fell in love with the school when she arrived in 2018.

“It reminded me so much of my own high school, where our teachers focused more on us as individuals than as test scores where the principal knew, not just my name, but what I wanted to do with my life.”

She said every year of the four years she’s taught there half of her colleagues leave, “or they are pushed out for having the audacity to speak up.” Simkins earns about $38,000 a year. Teachers say they are paid about 14 percent less than teachers in schools elsewhere in the district.

But teachers say they want recognition for their NAS Educators United union as a way to have a voice in decision making. Teachers say their No. 1 concern is helping alleviate the high turnover. More than half of teachers at the three schools left in the last four years; 40 percent have left in the past four months, according to rally organizers.

“I've seen the best people that we've had leave because of a lack of voice,” said Lilia Guimaraes, who has taught at the schools for 16 years. She described a divisive, at times chaotic, atmosphere at the school that she believes lacks leaders that truly champion the youth the school serves.

“I don't feel the school and the administration right now is believing enough in our kids to give them options for secondary schooling and to offer the kind of confidence and support that they need to enter college, whether it is for cosmetology or whether it's an English major,” she said.

Charter schools are independently run public schools that typically employ teachers at-will and are able to waive other state laws and rules. That is meant to give them flexibility in a number of matters including curriculum, the school calendar, teacher pay and even teacher licensure.

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New America School special education teacher Hugo Hernandez asks the board of the New America School to recognize the union. “This is the way you can support your teachers and your students today.”

Board considers ‘complex question’

Dan McMinimee, superintendent of the three schools, said the NAS board has dedicated a significant amount of time at board meetings trying to understand how unionization would impact the three schools. 

 “This is a complex question and the board is being thoughtful and thorough in their response,” said McMinimee, former superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools and also a former assistant superintendent of Douglas County schools.

Charter school organizing is new in Colorado but educator unions have been launching and winning campaigns for collective bargaining rights in other states. California teachers’ unions have charter educators in their membership and unions have organized charter management organizations across the state.

Nationwide, the total number of unionized charter schools declined between the 2016-17 school year and 2018-19 from 781 to 718.

McMinimee said he has met with the NAS United leadership twice in the hopes of creating “a collaborative structure” for the board to consider moving forward that would “allow for all voices to be heard and serve as a strategic planning opportunity.” That option was rejected by the NAS United leadership, McMinimee said at a Wednesday night meeting of the charter network’s board.

“I was hoping for a more collaborative environment to try to solve this challenge moving forward,” he said.

The NAS United leadership prefers union representation and a collective bargaining agreement.

During public comment at Wednesday’s New America School board meeting, teacher Simkins said teachers believe the only way to resolve the issues is through collective bargaining.

“I want the school to be the school that I know it can be. I want this charter school to be different from other charter schools.”

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Teachers from the New America School and other schools stand outside the charter network’s Lakewood school.

Other teachers, CEA support organizing effort

 Teachers from other schools in Jefferson County, as well as Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association which represents more than 39,000 teachers, spoke in support of the union effort.

 “It is actually the most trusting relationship you can have because it shows we are willing to come to the table to work through challenging things,” said Baca-Oehlert. “It’s not about a lack of trust — it’s about we respect one another so much we will come together to achieve a common goal.”

McMinimee told the board he believes that he has gone “over and above” in terms of professional development for teachers and has solicited feedback anonymously. 

Board members had several questions about how the school’s funding would operate with a union. McMinimee said regarding salary, benefits, and compensation structure — there is the option of creating a uniform salary for all employees. But he said that would be challenging given the complexity of the New America School’s structure.

The network operates with three different budgets because each of the three schools has a different charter authorizer — Adams 12 Five Star district, Jefferson County School District and the Charter School Institute. Each school runs on a different budget, with some authorizers sending more revenue to their charter schools than others.

“That’s going to be challenging moving forward unless there’s more revenue given to the CSI (Charter School Institute),” McMinimee said.

Board member Gina Nocera said she is concerned about the fact that the collaborative option was shot down by teachers.

“To me it speaks that there’s some kind of mistrust that needs to be addressed if we can’t collaboratively work together,” she said. “I worry about the culture in our schools.”

She and other board members asked administrators to research if there are any examples of collective bargaining agreements at charter schools in Colorado.

“I feel like (we’d be) breaking new ground,” said board chair David Conde. 

They also wanted more details about the structure of any less formal “collaborative” working relationship with teachers.

A decision on whether to recognize a union or not must be made by the board’s April 20 meeting.