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Strike Could Cause Rift With Charter Teachers : Union: At Vaughn and Fenton where they negotiate their own contracts, some wouldn’t back walkout. Others believe in solidarity.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever since they entered the foggy realm of public school reform, charter schools have struggled to define their relationships with both the massive school district they left and a union that still counts most of their teachers as members.

But now, as the threat of a districtwide strike looms, teachers at the two most fiscally independent charter schools--Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima and Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace--are seeing these relationships clouded as never before.

That’s because, unlike other charter schools, Vaughn and Fenton hire their own teachers and set their own salaries.

For some of the 100 teachers at Vaughn and Fenton, the idea of striking against contracts they negotiated apart from the union verges on the absurd.

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“I wrote the contracts,” said Stanley Stern, a teacher at Vaughn who is the school’s budget director. “Am I supposed to strike against myself?”

But for others, a desire to show solidarity with the 32,000 teachers in the union competes with the commitment they feel to their own young schools.

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“As an individual teacher, there is a part of me that says, ‘Why the heck should I go on strike?’ ” said Rebecca Camacho, a United Teachers-Los Angeles representative at Vaughn. “On the other hand, if I were working for the district, I would strike right now.”

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UTLA President Helen Bernstein sees no such ambiguity.

“I consider them part of my union,” Bernstein said. “If the majority votes to strike, I expect every member to walk out.”

There are nine operating charter schools associated with the Los Angeles Unified School District. But just three--Vaughn, Fenton, and Edu-Train in Los Angeles--are fiscally autonomous. Edu-Train was a nonprofit organization before it was a charter school, and most of its teachers are not former LAUSD employees. The other six charter schools chose not to take charge of their budgets and instead use the same teacher contracts as the rest of the district.

Bernstein said that even though Vaughn and Fenton set their own salaries, their base pay is reflective of the district scale and would benefit from union negotiations.

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“I guarantee that if our salary is restored by 10% they would profit in the same way,” she said.

The teachers union is asking the Los Angeles Board of Education to restore a 10% pay cut its teachers have absorbed for two years. The board has offered a 7% restoration--4% indefinitely and 3% as a one-year-only giveback. But Bernstein rejected the offer and has called for a Sept. 13-14 strike vote.

“If the charter schools remove themselves from what is going in LAUSD, I guarantee there will be hostility from their brothers and sisters in the union,” Bernstein said.

Under the state law, charter schools receive public funding but are free to write their own rules. The schools that chose to operate with complete fiscal autonomy hire their own teachers, set their own pay and generally use their money however they see fit. Both Vaughn and Fenton saved money in their first year of operation by reducing administrative costs and increasing attendance. Both pledged to use some of the money to restore teacher salaries by 5% initially and vowed to top any district restoration by about 2%. Many charter school teachers believe they have little to gain from negotiations between UTLA and the district.

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“We empathize with our colleagues, but our working conditions are not the same,” said Yvette King-Berg, the bilingual coordinator at Fenton. “We’ve already accomplished some of the very things they’d be walking for.”

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Vaughn union members, about 30 of 49 teachers, have written to UTLA asking for clarification of their relationship to the district and their role in a potential strike. If they are viewed as a separate district, as they believe they are, their participation in the strike would not be required, they reason.

Fenton teachers, nearly all of whom are union members, have not taken an official position. But many are grappling to define their role in a potential strike.

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“We are really considered by the state to be a separate district,” King-Berg said. “It would be like asking me to go on strike for Pasadena Unified.”

Bernstein counters that the teachers at Vaughn and Fenton are technically on leave from LAUSD, that their charter status does not constitute a separate district. She said the charters benefit from union negotiations not just on salary, but also on the health benefits they buy through the district.

Joe Rao, who heads the district’s reform unit, defines the charter schools as “quasi independent,” meaning they remain under the auspices of the Los Angeles Board of Education, which has the right to revoke their charter if they do not adhere to its conditions.

But exactly how the charter agreements play out on the campuses remains to be seen.

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“As the charters grow, these kinds of questions will continue to be asked,” Rao said.

The novelty of their situation leaves teachers at Vaughn and Fenton with no real guide for what to do in the event of a strike.

Some are looking for ways to show solidarity with other union members without disrupting classes or shutting down their own schools.

Teachers who are “off track” on vacation, for example, could walk picket lines without missing any work. Others are considering taking sick days and giving the money to the union in support of the strike. Others simply aren’t sure.

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“My gut reaction is I’ll have to wait and see,” said Brenda Nyx, the UTLA representative at Fenton. “Everything is unknown.”


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