Education

Mixed ruling on claims Alliance charter school leaders obstructed teachers union organizing

FILE - Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a union representing L.A. Unified teachers, speaks during a rally in February.
FILE - Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a union representing L.A. Unified teachers, speaks during a rally in February.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

Did Los Angeles' largest chain of charter schools attempt to bust its teachers' efforts to unionize? Yes and no, a judge has ruled.

On one hand, Administrative Law Judge Kent Morizawa found administrators at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools acted unlawfully when they blocked teachers union organizers from two campuses and redirected the union's emails to teachers' spam folders for a time.

But in his decision last Friday, he also ruled that three written communications Alliance leaders sent to the charter networks' teachers and parents — all of which criticized the union in the midst of the organizing effort — were in-bounds.

Both the union and the charter network's leaders found something to like in Morizawa's ruling for the state's Public Employment Relations Board.

Representatives of the union, United Teachers Los Angeles, cheered Morizawa's ruling that Alliance's central office, which oversees a network of 27 schools, is subject to state labor laws just like its individual schools — a point the charter network's leaders had disputed.

That portion of the ruling is "absolutely precedent-setting," said attorney Jesús Quiñonez, who represents UTLA. "It’s a major issue with respect to charter schools and labor relations in California."

But while Morizawa ordered the charter network to "cease and desist" from violating those labor laws, Alliance spokesperson Catherine Suitor said Tuesday administrators have long since corrected the actions the judge found unlawful.

"We’re very pleased that the ruling came as it did," Suitor said.

Last December, an L.A. Superior Court judge ordered Alliance to allow union organizers onto campus and to stop blocking UTLA emails from teachers' work accounts. Suitor said administrators have complied with that order, saying UTLA organizers have had access to Alliance campuses and the ability to send emails to teachers.

UTLA also argued Alliance leaders intimidated or coerced employees when they distributed letters offering their unfavorable take on teachers unions. One such communication — an FAQ sent to teachers on March 20, 2015 — said unionization "creates a barrier to the collaborative working relationship of teachers with their administrators." The judge rejected UTLA's argument.

"Alliance is not required to remain neutral in the face of UTLA's organizing campaign and can exercise its free speech so long as there is no threat of reprisal or force, or promise of benefit," Morizawa wrote.

"We disagree with the judge on that," Quiñonez said, adding UTLA was still weighing whether to appeal that portion of the ruling. UTLA argued that, in the context of Alliance blocking emails from inboxes and barring union organizers from campus, the judge should have read those communications as being coercive.

Morizawa also ruled the then-principal of Alliance Smidt Tech High School was out-of-line when she essentially attempted to coerce a teacher to renounce her support of the unionization campaign by bringing up the teacher's evaluation scores.

Suitor conceded the principal's statement was ill-advised and said the principal no longer works for Alliance.

In a statement, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl wrote Alliance teachers involved in the organizing effort "want to work together through a union to improve education for students and improve retention of teaching staff, but rather than being heard they were harassed."

Two weeks ago, state lawmakers requested an audit of Alliance's finances to determine if charter administrators used any public funds to dissaude the network's 650 teachers from unionizing. Suitor said the charters' leaders are confident the audit will turn up no evidence of anti-union activity.

Morizawa's ruling did not cover two other UTLA complaints against Alliance still pending before another administrative law judge with the Public Employment Relations Board.

Quiñonez said those complaints cover a teacher at Alliance's Collins Family High School, who the union says was let go over his union activities; "unlawful surveillance" by administrators, an online petition the charter network's leaders set up seeking anti-union signatures, and Alliance's "refusal" to meet with UTLA.