Kansas

Kauffman School teachers want it to be Kansas City’s first unionized charter | KCUR 89.3

After two years of organizing, nearly 100 teachers at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School have officially declared their intention to organize. The school, located at Paseo and 63rd Streets, serves nearly 1,000 students in fifth through twelfth grades. The group will join the American Federation of Teachers Local 691, which also represents Kansas City public schools.

Teachers organize to reduce high staff turnover, low pay and lack of breaks. They also want a more manageable workload, better recruitment of substitute teachers and better student support from the EMKS.

Julian Vizitei teaches government in the 12th grade at the school. He says the union effort arose during the pandemic when the school was online.

“Teachers fight, children fight, families fight. I mean, every part of the school system is struggling the same way,” Vizitei said. “This isn’t a uniquely Kauffman problem—it’s a problem within education. But I was really like, ‘What can I control?’ And what I can control is what we do at our school.”

If successful, the school will become only the second charter school in the state to unionize — and the largest. Teacher at KIPP St. Louis High School voted to unionize with AFT in November 2022.

Katie Pasniewksi, the school’s chief operating officer, said in a statement the school was aware of efforts to unionize.

“AFT has the legal right to organize employees for collective bargaining,” Pasniewksi said. “EMKS focuses on the well-being of students and families. We have created a positive learning environment and supported each student to reach their full potential.”

Jason Roberts, president of AFT Local 691, said that ultimately, the drive to organize comes down to respect. Some teachers at EMKS make about $36,000, one of the lowest teacher salaries in the Kansas City area. Roberts said the pay would not come with a union contract.

“If you look around and work really hard — and Kauffman makes his teachers work really hard, that’s kind of an industry standard — you’re like, ‘I’m with you because I believe in your mission and your vision, but at what cost ?’” Roberts said. “The cost is almost 10,000 less than if I just jumped off the boat and went somewhere else.”

EMKS was founded in 2011 and since the opening there has only been one teacher at the school. Vizitei said most teachers only stay an average of three years. He says he’s concerned about how the high turnover is affecting students and new teachers who need support.

“I can think of a list of great teachers who just couldn’t keep up the workload,” Vizitei said. “You go to other schools and it’s like there’s a whole plethora of teachers that have been there for years and have all this institutional knowledge. It is not helpful for children to keep cycling.”

Natasha Waschek teaches English in the ninth grade and has been with EMKS for four years. Each school year she returns to new teachers. Waschek says she believes teachers leave not because they’ve had difficult students, but because “their emotional work isn’t compensated or appreciated in the caliber that I think they deserve.”

“The best thing for kids and the best thing for schools is when the teachers stay and build relationships with the kids and they watch the kids grow and breathe life into them,” says Waschek. “That way we can keep great people who are good for kids, who are good for the staff in the building, and hopefully do what they love on a regular basis for a long time to come.”

EMKS administration and management learned of the organizing campaign several months before the teachers went public. The teachers claim they have been the subject of a widespread anti-union campaign since then.

In response, AFT Local 691 has filed an unfair labor practice indictment against the school and is awaiting the results.

According to the complaint, the school employed an anti-union law firm to interview teachers one-on-one to discourage them from unionizing, implemented unlawful performance improvement plans and disciplined staff for non-compliance, and interrogated staff about union activities and their position on unions, telling workers that forming a union would block the changes they want and disrupt workplace dynamics.

Vizitei says some administrators told him they were afraid to talk to the organizing teachers “because they don’t want to get in trouble.” Roberts says that goes against the union’s goals.

“As president of this place, I have never reprimanded or attempted to reprimand an administrator for having a relationship and having a conversation with teachers,” Roberts said. “To say, ‘I’m afraid I can’t speak to you anymore,’ really falls short of even some of the basic principles of what a union believes.”

The teachers sent a letter to school officials, urging them to stop spending money on union busting and instead use that money for teacher retention and family support services.

Pasniewksi said the school is operating within its legal rights.

“We have and will provide employees with lawful and truthful information so employees can make an informed decision about whether a union is right for them, their family, their students and their classroom,” she said in a statement.

Lyndsay Yates has been with EWKS for five years and teaches a seminary class for freshmen in the ninth grade. She says the anti-union campaign has instead brought teachers closer together.

“I’ve actually never felt happier with my co-workers — I think because we’re doing that and because we’re having conversations and actively connecting with each other in a way we’ve never done before,” Yates said. “[The pushback]made me realize that these are the people I’m here to fight for because I love these people.”

Unionization among charter school teachers has declined over the past decade. 2009-10, the This was reported by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 12% of schools nationwide participated in unions. As of 2018/19 – the most recent year in the organization’s data – just over 10% of schools were unionised.

Now the numbers are increasing. There are currently approximately 7,500 AFT members serving in charter schools nationwide. Four new charter schools have been recognized by the union this school year and more are awaiting elections. KIPP in St. Louis was one of the schools that recently won her election.

Titilayo Adelusola teaches mathematics in the sixth grade. She has been with the EMKS for two years – the teachers’ union campaign has been active throughout her time at the school. She hopes EMKS will be next on the growing list of schools to win their union elections.

“This is just a really wonderful opportunity that we have to effect change in a positive way,” said Adelusola. “Our children deserve the support of adults who are also supported, so this is a wonderful opportunity for us to build community with one another and really make that positive change happen.”

Roberts is confident that EMKS teachers will soon be part of AFT Local 691. He believes other charter schools in the subway will also unionize once they are successful.

“I think what we’re going to see is a realization among all the other charter schools in the subway that ‘if they can do it and go up against the money and power of Kauffman, then we can do it.’ ‘ said Roberts.

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