Lusher’s ‘Joan of Arc’ Kathy Riedlinger often a focus of controversy over admissions, discrimination claims _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Lusher Charter School's Alcee Fortier Campus is seen in New Orleans, La. Thursday, April 14, 2016.

Amid questions about whether the drive had the support of a majority of the faculty, a narrowly divided Lusher Charter School governing board refused Saturday to recognize a petition from a group of the school’s teachers hoping to form a union.

Instead, teachers will hold an open election in the near future to either affirm or reject the move.

The 6-5 vote came after an emotionally charged meeting that lasted more than four hours, during which almost 60 educators, parents and students on either side of the issue aired their views.

Had the petition been approved, Lusher would have become the third New Orleans charter school to form a union since the city’s public schools were radically reshaped after Hurricane Katrina.

After the 2005 storm, the state took over most of the schools, and the Orleans Parish School Board ended its longtime citywide collective bargaining agreement with the United Teachers of New Orleans.

That union has sought in recent years to recruit charter school teachers — requesting names and addresses of teachers from at least three dozen schools in 2013 — and has gained affiliates at Morris Jeff Community School and Benjamin Franklin High School.

But its push to sign up the teachers at Lusher has been controversial.

Questions abounded about the petition, even though it was signed by 60 percent of the Lusher teachers. Some of the educators, who met with The New Orleans Advocate prior to the vote, spoke of being pulled into closets and asked to sign something they had not fully read or understood.

“I was first approached in January by a teacher who asked me to step into a hall closet and close the door,” kindergarten teacher Michelle Chauvin said. “She was not happy with the behavior of some of the students in the classroom. She was not happy with the relocation of her classroom due to construction. She proceeded to tell me that, based on this, she would like me to stand with them, that they were going to start a union.”

Chauvin, who has taught at Lusher for four years and whose child attends the school, said she was shocked to learn that some teachers were out to unionize because of what she called personal issues. She said she did not sign the petition or attend any of the union supporters’ meetings.

Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Daniel Perez did sign, but only after he was urged to do so at least three times, he said. He said organizers told him that his signature meant only that he was supporting his colleagues’ desire to form a union, not supporting UTNO, a union he said failed to stand up for children before Hurricane Katrina.

The school system had “buildings with 100-year-old plumbing, non-flushing toilets, buildings with no air conditioning,” Perez said, yet UTNO remained “conspiciously quiet, throughout all of that. ... If they are the labor union, then why aren’t you addressing the conditions that your members are made to work under?”

In fact, UTNO did harangue school board members and top officials five months before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, criticizing everything from dilapidated buildings to repeated payroll gaffes and a lack of supplies, The Times-Picayune reported at the time.

Other teachers expressed loyalty to the Lusher administration, saying it was Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger, not a union, who saw to it that every Lusher teacher returning to the city after the storm who wanted a job had one.

Second thoughts or confusion led at least three petition signers to ask later to have their names removed, union organizers confirmed. Other signers were not counted in the overall tally because they didn’t have in-classroom positions, although unions have traditionally represented all professionals at schools.

While the removal requests gave some Lusher board members pause, union organizer and second-grade teacher Gigi Boesch said the union supporters still had the majority they needed to request board recognition.

Boesch and high school math teacher Jerome White said that while some teachers have taken issue with some administrative decisions in recent years, it’s inaccurate to cast them as employees with petty grudges.

“We have some issues that we are trying to bring to the forefront, but that should not be interepreted as we are angry at them, or we are trying to bring them down, or we want to get them fired,” White said of the Lusher administrators.

Instead, he said, most of the signers want a union because they believe teachers deserve a voice, because they want to reduce employee turnover and because they want to generally improve the school. He said many who refused to sign did so out of fear, especially those whose children attend Lusher.

The conflicting viewpoints perplexed board members, who alternately questioned the petition’s validity and said teachers should get to decide their own fate.

In the coming months, the National Labor Relations Board will oversee an on-site election, said Brad Richard, a union organizer and high school creative writing teacher.

Chauvin said she’s “thrilled to have this next step,” which she said will bring fairness to the process.

But White said he fears that the weeks leading up to the vote “will become a campaign that gets swayed by whoever has the most power.”

One of White’s colleagues, whom he declined to identify, has already been pressured to remove his name from the petition, White said. “It’s getting dirty … and I fear that moving forward, truth and honest opinions will not prevail.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.