Public funds for the public good, not union busting
Cleveland charter school uses public dollars to fight union drive
Teachers at Menlo Park Academy come to work every day to shape the minds and inspire the dreams of young Clevelanders. They are in the middle of a union drive at the privately operated, publicly funded charter school, which serves gifted students in grades K-8. Management is fighting them every inch of the way.
The use of public funds for charter schools in Ohio already undermines Ohio’s public education system. The state is spending hundreds of millions on privately run charter schools and asking for little accountability in return. That's how scandals like the ECOT debacle can take root. The for-profit online charter school took millions in public money by overinflating enrollment numbers. When charter schools siphon public funds, public schools have less state funding for books, technology, facility upgrades and teacher pay. Meanwhile, more state money goes to private interests. It’s even more damaging when a charter school’s management uses those funds to fight teachers’ right to speak up together through a union.
Ohio lawmakers continue to spend more public funds on charter schools each year, committing an all-time high of nearly $1 billion in budget year 2020-2021. Menlo Park alone received over $4 million. Charters — like all schools — received federal funds through COVID response legislation, with Menlo Park receiving close to $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding as well as Paycheck Protection Program funding. As a primarily publicly funded school, Menlo has a responsibility to use funds for education, and to be an ethical employer.
Instead, management is using some of the funding to fight the union drive. In November, 96% of Menlo's educators signed union cards that were filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a secret-ballot union election. Management refused to voluntarily recognize the union and hired a high-price antiunion lawyer to delay the election.
Deb Vandrasik, a 4th- and 5th-grade teacher at Menlo Park, said that teachers need books, chairs and desks. “But now they are spending thousands of dollars to try to bust our union,” she said.
No publicly funded entity should spend money on union-busting, but it’s especially egregious when nearly all employees support the drive and when the money is intended to be spent educating children.
Menlo Park teachers say they want a voice in decisions that directly affect them and the students they serve. Their work to create consistency and sustainability in their classrooms has been undercut by the lack of accountability for board members and school leaders, which leads to high turnover. Menlo Park teachers are paid, on average, $40,612 a year compared to teachers in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District who are paid $53,498 on average, according to Glassdoor.com. Both groups of educators are being paid well below their worth, which is contributing to low teacher supply in the state. Teachers need stability, so they can have the resources and support they need to be able to effectively teach their students; most believe unionizing is the only way.
“We are forming a union because the learning environment in the school is chaotic and unstable, teachers feel unsupported and lack basic necessities such as supplies and consistent curriculum,” said Beth Turk, an intervention specialist at Menlo Park.
Management is delaying the union election by asserting that the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over their school. Yet over a decade of precedent in Ohio shows that charter school union elections are conducted by the NLRB.
Educators at Menlo Park Academy are disheartened by the hesitation and lack of support from the board and school leaders, especially after hearing of the recent success of unionizing at Summit Academy Secondary in Lorain. Summit Academy Secondary teachers filed for an election the same day as those at Menlo Park Academy. Their election was completed by January 14th, becoming the eighth charter school to join the Cleveland ACTS union.
If successful in forming a union, teachers at Menlo Park Academy will have more input in decision-making, a reduction in teacher and staff turnover, and will be able to provide more stability and sustainability for their students. Menlo Park Academy leadership should not be spending public resources on this frivolous anti-union campaign. Instead, they should use those funds to improve educational outcomes for all students, regardless of their ZIP code or what they look like, to build a brighter future for Ohio.