Most of Stephanie Ernst’s students at New America School in Aurora are immigrants who are still learning English, but after a rash of teacher and staff departures this school year, her students no longer have a Spanish program in which they can practice their first language. Nor do they have a school nurse. Or a social worker.
Her colleague Collette Simkins, who teaches art and drama at the charter school network’s Thornton campus, has also watched classrooms become revolving doors, with educators leaving as quickly as they arrived and students floundering in the wake of their exit.
“If all of their favorite teachers in the building leave every year, they don’t know who will be back come August,” Simkins said.
Clad in red beside nearly 30 other educators and community members under a gray sky threatening rain, Ernst and Simkins rallied in the parking lot of the New America School’s Lakewood campus Wednesday evening calling for board members to recognize a union they’ve been trying to create for several months as they’ve grappled with turnover.
“You left us no choice! We have to use our teacher voice!” demonstrators chanted while parading through the largely empty parking lot prior to charter school network board’s monthly meeting. Educators have been working to form the New America Schools Educators United union since October and say the board, which presides over three schools, has mostly been unresponsive.
If they succeed in launching a teacher’s union, it would be the first in Colorado affiliated with a charter school.
Charter schools in Colorado are independent public schools overseen by an outside authorizer. They have historically operated free of teacher’s unions, which is central to their appeal for many parents, particularly those who object to how and what students are taught in traditional public schools. Colorado has 266 charter schools, according to the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
New America School educators pushing for a union don’t see another way to ensure they have more say in the decisions made at the board table over pay, learning and working conditions, what and how they teach students, and their schools’ grievance process.
“A lot of those big decisions are made by administration and the board who are not in the classrooms,” said Simkins, who has taught at the New America School in Thornton for four years and is already considered a veteran teacher there. Very few of her colleagues have presided over a classroom at the charter school longer than she has.
“The bottom line is we love New America,” said Simkins, who earns about $38,000 per year and lives with two roommates to make ends meet. “We are here because we love this school, and we really value what this school can be. By collectively bargaining with us, the board can show us that New America School loves and respects its educators and believes that they know how to make this school a truly incredible place.”
The push for a union comes with the support of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union with about 39,000 members. If the New School teachers were recognized as a union, they would be a local affiliate of CEA.
“It’s very important for all educators to have a voice in the learning and working conditions of our schools, but when you think about the work that the educators of the New America Schools do, it’s not hard to understand the need for those educators to have a voice in advocating for their students,” said CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert, who demonstrated with teachers and addressed board members during public comment.
New America School, founded in 2004 in part by Gov. Jared Polis, has about 65 employees and close to 530 students ages 14-21 across its three campuses in the Denver metro area. The charter school network is committed to serving recent immigrants as well as non-traditional students and traditional students wanting “a more personal atmosphere that fits their learning needs,” according to its website.
After meeting for a half hour in executive session on Wednesday evening, board members discussed the prospect of a teacher’s union in public for another half hour and ultimately committed to making a decision about whether to recognize the New America Schools Educators United union by April. Board members asked Superintendent Dan McMinimee and Christopher Esser, a lawyer supporting the charter school network as it explores what a union would mean, to research collective bargaining agreements in the context of charter schools in Colorado.
McMinimee, who plans to retire at the end of June, cited complications with establishing one union to represent what he described as three very different campuses that have varying budgets, deal with different providers for health care benefits and work with different authorizers. Jeffco Public Schools oversees the charter school network’s Lakewood campus while Adams 12 Five Star Schools serves as the authorizer of the Thornton campus, and the Colorado Charter School Institute is the authorizer of the Aurora school.
“If we start talking about salary, benefits, other compensation pieces, what we have to look at is what’s the lowest common denominator,” McMinimee told board members while discussing the idea of collective bargaining with educators.
Some board members raised concerns about recognizing a union.
“As we’re talking about putting it all together, all of those questions and the implications are becoming bigger and almost hindering to the ability of doing what we really need to do,” said board secretary Tomas Mejia.
Others like Gina Nocera, past board chair, described teacher input as “obviously very necessary” to the charter school network and questioned whether there are deeper problems and some kind of “dysfunction” within the schools’ culture as educators have been insistent on the need for collective bargaining.
“To me it speaks that there’s some kind of distrust,” Nocera said.
“Protection to speak any truths“
Charter school network leadership previously proposed creating something like a faculty council at a higher education institution, in which representatives from the charter schools would meet regularly with the superintendent and board. But educators want more of a structure in place along with stronger protections.
“There has to be something more substantial than just a bunch of words and committees,” said Hugo Hernandez, a special education teacher at the Thornton school.
Baca-Oehlert, of the CEA, echoed concerns of high turnover across the charter school network, worried about how severely it impacts students who need “the most stability.”
McMinimee acknowledged that the network has experienced “a considerable amount of turnover” throughout the five years he has served as superintendent. Some of that has stemmed from disgruntled employees choosing to leave, he said, while others have left on good terms for personal or family reasons. The network has also had to adjust staffing and eliminate some positions as enrollment has declined, he said.
McMinimee understands the importance of teachers’ voices and said, “it hasn’t been a problem until now.”
But he also isn’t convinced the charter school network needs a full-fledged union.
“I think teacher voice is necessary,” he said. “I’m not sure you have to go to this end to have teacher voice.”
That’s where many educators at his schools disagree. Ernst, a math teacher at New America School in Aurora, is adamant that a union would give teachers more of a voice in decision-making and would offer educators more professional development resources through CEA, which she believes would help the network retain teachers and better engage students.
“Only with a union do I have the protection to speak any truths that could move the organization in a better direction,” Ernst added.
One of those truths revolves around her frustration with McMinimee’s salary, which she said is “disproportionately large,” especially considering the number of students in the charter school network.
McMinimee, who previously served as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools and resigned in March 2017, said he would be paid about $166,000 this school year. He took a 20% pay cut during the last school year as the charter school network’s budget suffered amid lower enrollment.
Ernst’s colleague, Jaime Paterson, a humanities teacher at the Aurora campus, will soon join the ranks of educators and staff who have moved on from the charter school network, fed up with low pay, few resources for teachers and what she sees as minimal respect.
“Teachers are the lifeblood of New America, and yet they are treated as inconveniences,” Paterson told the board during public comment.
She’s enraged by “the insulting and inhumane pay” as her monthly wages fall short of her bills while she said McMinimee has already made more than four times her total salary.
“One has to wonder if funds are being appropriately allocated to staff and students,” Paterson told the board. “What is the point of staying in a hostile, under resourced workplace to be gravely underpaid as the superintendent rakes it in hand over fist?”
Her last day in her classroom is Thursday.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1:41 p.m. on March 17, 2022, to reflect Superintendent Dan McMinimee’s salary. He said he would be paid about $166,000 this school year.