KIPP Columbus charter school employees move closer to unionization

Amid claims that school officials have engaged in union-busting schemes, this week employees moved a step closer to forming a collective bargaining unit.
Union supporters at KIPP Columbus after turning in their union cards in Nov. 2022.
Union supporters at KIPP Columbus after turning in their union cards in Nov. 2022.Courtesy KIPP Columbus ACTS

On the first or second day of the 2022 school year, Andrew Mensah, a math teacher and football coach at KIPP Columbus, a Northeast Side charter school, said staff members learned that their paid time off had been slashed – in some cases by more than 50 percent.

“We signed contracts at the end of last school year, and they didn’t mention anything about a reduction in PTO,” said Mensah, an employee currently in his 12th year at the school, who saw his paid time off cut from 18 days to 8 days for the 2022-23 school year. “And it happened without any conversation, without any notice. … And it happened across the board with all of our teachers, and we learned through this action that we literally had no voice, and we have no say-so in what happens with our working conditions. … So, looking at that situation, along with many others throughout the years, we realized the only recourse was to get a seat at the table that can’t be taken away and can’t be ignored.”

In the fall of 2022, staff members from KIPP’s primary, elementary, middle and high schools organized as the KIPP Columbus Alliance for Charter Teachers and Staff (KIPP Columbus ACTS) through the Ohio Federation of Teachers, a statewide federation of unions affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. Mensah said that 78 percent of the school’s employees signed cards signaling a desire to move forward on a union vote, which were delivered to officials in November. But when KIPP Columbus Acts called on the superintendent and the board of directors to voluntarily recognize their union, the request was declined.

In the months that followed, union supporters said the charter school engaged in a series of union-busting schemes, including scheduling mandatory meetings with consultants who expressed anti-union views, cutting the position of Student Life Coordinator, which directly impacted workers who had engaged in “protected, concerted activity," and walking back additional pay promised to intervention specialists. 

In one of the three complaints filed to the National Labor Relations Board, copies of which were obtained by Matter News, union supporters claimed that the superintendent announced additional pay for intervention specialists in September 2022 – two months before the union filed for a National Relations Labor Board (NLRB) election on Nov. 15 – and rescinded the promise on Feb. 24, 2023, announcing the school "could not provide additional pay due to the union organizing efforts,” the complaint reads.

“In Ohio, the legal caseload limit is 15 [students]. We currently have intervention specialists at KIPP who have well over 25 on their caseloads,” said Stephanie Holiday, a 6th-8th grade intervention specialist. “In September of 2022, we were told by management we would receive extra pay for taking on that larger caseload. When we realized this year that we hadn’t received it, we reached out to our superintendent, Ciji Pittman, just to see where we were at. And then we had a meeting in February where she told us that it was on pause until KIPP is either unionized or not.

"As we know, when a union campaign goes public, management must keep workplace policies as they are – in other words, maintain the status quo – unless the union agrees to changes. This means they were responsible for keeping the promise to intervention specialists, which was made prior to the [union] campaign.”

"We respect our colleagues' rights to choose whether or not they join the OFT, and so, any decisions regarding staffing or benefits are always made to ensure we are best serving our students and are at all times complying with the applicable law,” wrote a KIPP Columbus spokesperson in response to an interview request. “We continue to believe that our current model provides a flexible and innovative learning environment for students while supporting and empowering our valued teachers and staff."

The union push was also complicated by the fact that charter schools such as KIPP Columbus are considered private employers even though they are public schools. (KIPP Columbus received at least $15 million in public funding for the 2021-22 school year, according to court documents.)

As a result, when employees voted in November to move forward on a union vote, they filed through NLRB – the private sector labor board. School officials contested this designation, saying that the union vote would need to be run via the State Employee Relations Board (SERB), which handles public employees. 

The challenge led to a months-long delay, during which employees said they were subjected to a barrage of anti-union letters and meetings. But earlier this week, the courts rejected the school's claim in a ruling, meaning that KIPP Columbus employees can now move forward via the NLRB, which will be tasked with conducting a secret ballot election at a date to be determined. If a majority of staffers vote in favor of forming a union, KIPP Columbus employees would then be represented by the Ohio Federation of Teachers for the purposes of collective bargaining.

“I want to open lines of communication through the collective bargaining agreement and a contract,” Mensah said. “Because right now our ability to address concerns is significantly curtailed.”

Holiday echoed this idea, saying that the collective power afforded by a union would grant the staffers a voice that to this point has been lacking.

“We can be invited to the table and say whatever we need to say. But are they receiving it? Are they actually applying our feedback?” she said. “Having a union, not only do we have a seat at the table, but we’re part of the conversation.”

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