Ben Franklin becomes 2nd N.O. charter with a union _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Franklin teacher Stephen Pearce, left, waits it out as the school's charter board meets in executive session over the issue of allowing teachers to unionize Thursday, May 15, 2014.

Benjamin Franklin High School became the second charter school in New Orleans to embrace the idea of unionized teachers Thursday, embarking on an experiment that’s likely to be closely watched by educators citywide.

Franklin, a magnet school and one of the most highly regarded campuses in New Orleans, joins only Morris Jeff Community School in formally recognizing a teachers’ union, making them two anomalies in a system where most schools operate as independent charters without unions or collective bargaining.

The charter board that governs Franklin voted 9 to 1 to recognize the new union Thursday evening after a two-hour executive session and a handful of impassioned comments from teachers, parents and alumni.

After weeks of anticipation and almost no public hint of which way the board was leaning, Chairman Duris Holmes opened the board’s public discussion by arguing that a vote against the union would only alienate the school’s teachers.

If the board had rejected the request, teachers could have applied to the National Labor Relations Board, which could then have organized a legally binding staff vote. Because more than 85 percent of the school’s 45 or so teachers have already signed a petition in support of the union, there seemed to be little the school could do to keep the union from forming eventually.

“What goodwill are you going to have left if you say, ‘We’re not going to voluntarily recognize you?’ ” Holmes said.

Charter schools and unions remain deeply controversial in New Orleans and around the country. Typically, charter schools operate without the constraints that come with union bargaining contracts or the dictates of an elected school board, attributing much of their success to the flexibility they enjoy as a result.

That ethos, in turn, has inspired a backlash among some teachers, particularly more veteran teachers. They complain of having to work as at-will employees without any job protections and with unfair disparities in pay and little or no voice in how schools are run.

Both points of view got a hearing Thursday, although most comments favored unionization. One of the few statements against the idea came from a Franklin alumnus named Tom Wagner, who argued against trying to fix what already appears to be working.

“What happens when we make this change?” he said. “We say we will still have the dialogue, and yet you’re in essence interposing someone between yourselves and the board and the administration.”

Greg Swanson, an English teacher, told board members flatly, “A ‘no’ vote is a public declaration against the teachers of Franklin.”

The vote does not necessarily signal a return of powerful teachers’ unions in New Orleans. That era that came to a close shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when the parish school board decided to void the existing contract and lay off all of the district’s staff.

Many of the city’s charter leaders retain a deep philosophical aversion to unions. Some have said they would take any attempt by unionizing at their schools as a sign of poor communication between teachers and administrators.

Nor do the teachers organizing at Franklin or Morris Jeff envision a return to the old system where one union encompassing all the city’s teachers would bargain with the district over pay, benefits and other issues. For now, Morris Jeff teachers aren’t even bargaining over a school-specific contract, just offering feedback to administrators on school policies.

Teachers at Franklin do at least want to engage school officials over pay and benefits. There have been rumors, for instance, that the school was considering pulling its teachers out of the state’s retirement system, a decision that might affect teachers’ benefits. Some teachers have complained about arbitrary differences in salaries.