By Michael Fiorillo, Chapter Leader, Newcomers High School
The September issue of the New York Teacher hailed the opening of the Green Dot Charter School in the Bronx. Expanding from its origins in Los Angeles, Green Dot has come to the city with great fanfare: it has received praise in the mainstream press in California and elsewhere, and the blessing of UFT and AFT President Randi Weingarten. In 2007, Weingarten sidestepped the AFT affiliate union in Los Angeles, which had been feuding with Green Dot, to meet with its founder and CEO Steve Barr. At that time, Weingarten announced an agreement with Barr to sponsor and bring a Green Dot charter school to New York City, despite the Los Angeles local’s charge that Green Dot had been poaching resources from the LA school system and privatizing public high schools.
Randi has claimed that Green Dot is a special case among charter schools, that, rather than avoid unionization, it seeks to create partnerships with teacher unions. It can be a compelling argument, since most trade unionists would agree that having a union is preferable to being unorganized, and since the overwhelming majority of charter schools are agressively anti-union. The UFT leadership has additionally argued that the Green Dot contract in effect in Los Angeles contains features that are superior to those we currently have. But is this really the case? Is the UFT’s cozying-up to Green Dot an example of a creative and far-sighted strategy, or is it going to permit a corporate Trojan Horse into the New York City public schools, weakening the contract we work under, splitting the work force, and furthering the privatization of public education?
In September after the NY Teacher article appeared I called Academic High School Vice President Leo Casey and asked him to send me a copy of the contract between the UFT and Green Dot. To my surprise he told me that no contract had been negotiated yet, and that teachers in the Bronx school were working under the terms of the LA contract between Green Dot and their house union, The Asociasacion de Maestros Unidos. While I found this rather odd, since the partnership between the UFT and Green Dot had been announced months before, I said nothing and proceeded to obtain a copy of the LA contract, which can be found on Green Dot’s web site.
Here is a summary of some important contrasts between their contract and our current one:
- Lower Salary: although a Green Dot teacher’s salary maxes out much sooner than ours- 8 years versus 22- the maximum salary is far lower: $80, 992.
- No Mandatory Arbitration of Grievances: grievances are handled by mediators and thus even if a teacher wins there is no binding legal precedent set for the future; the battles must be continually re-fought, a guarantee of long term abuse and teacher demoralization.
- No Set Work Day: the contract calls for a “professional work day,” which is to include the student day, staff meetings and time needed for preparation. In effect this means that the workday will be set by the most obsequious and sycophantic teachers who are trying to impress the principal. In
addition, the principal can call staff meetings before the beginning of the school day and continue them after school “if school business was not otherwise completed in regularly scheduled meetings.”
- No Tenure Worthy of the Name: “Any teacher receiving a ‘practice does not meet standards’ rating shall be given a six month improvement plan” If it is judged that the plan has not been met, the teacher can be fired the following year. There is nothing approximating the protections we currently enjoy regarding the 3020-A dismissal process.
- No Seniority Regarding Teaching Assignments
- Overly Detailed Teacher Evaluation Procedure: ripe for abuse by nit-picking or vindictive administrators.
So there we have some of the salient features of the Green Dot contract. But what about the school vis-à-vis students and parents?
- Students Chosen by Lottery: sometimes called “cherry picking lite,” this process favors the most informed and committed parents, skewing the student body towards those who’ve enjoyed greater parent involvement in their education, and foisting more troubled and academically challenged students on the remaining public high schools, which will then be blamed for their increasing problems, punished and closed.
- Compulsory Parent Involvement: parents must sign a participation contract, opening up further possibilities for subtle, or brazen, efforts to mold and manipulate the composition of the student body, as we have seen with reports about Eva Moskowittz’s Harlem Success Academy.
- Cagey Language Regarding School Statistics: Green Dot claims that “98% of seniors graduate,” but this ignores the attrition rateprior to senior year. As has been documented with KIPP schools, the student attrition rate in charter schools can be high, giving a false sense of their effectiveness.
Potentially most disturbing is language in the contract regarding the assignability of the contract. By this is meant the ability to maintain union representation of teachers in the event of “corporate merger affiliation, change of affiliation, employer or transfer of employees.” While the contract calls for the participation of the union in this process, the ultimate power is held by the Board of Directors. And while the contract also states that the “current” contract shall remain in effect, it must be asked, what would happen should the contract expire: would a new corporate entity be able to walk away from the union? As I understand it, the Green Dot teachers in NY are employees of the corporation that runs the school and are not covered by the Taylor Law, which would enable them to continue working under the terms of an expired agreement. Should I be correct in my interpretation, the Board of Directors could essentially “run away” from the union at an opportune moment. This would likely be when the school has “scaled up” and can function as a franchise operation, which is the emerging model of corporate and foundation supported charter schools.
I raise this issue because of some of the powers behind Green Dot. While Steve Barr, founder of Rock the Vote, is the public face of Green Dot and is its spokesman, in fact the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Green Dot in NY is Jeffery T. Leeds. Mr. Leeds is the head of Leeds Equity, a private equity firm. These are firms that make their money by purchasing publicly-owned businesses, reconfiguring them, and then selling them back to the public, often after stripping away resources and enjoying hefty fees in the process. In Los Angeles, the COO is a former partner in Bain Capital, one of the most prominent private equity firms, and Mitt Romney’s corporate alma mater. Traditionally, private equity firms have taken public corporations private - in a process known as “strip and flip” – but we may be seeing these operators entering into the public sector and applying their model to privatize these schools, after getting the taxpayers to fund their start.
In additon, Leeds Equity is the owner of The Sexton Corporation, a supplier of contingent – read temporary- labor which “helps its clients reduce recruitment and labor costs.” It is also the owner of Datamark, which owns and does marketing for private, for-profit proprietary schools, which are consistently mired in scandals regarding their hard sell recruitment procedures. In fact, Leeds has partnered with disgraced former Massachusetts governor William Weld, whose reputation was tarred by his association with Decker College, a scam proprietary school that was forced to close for fraudulent and unethical practices. Rudy Giuliani is Chairman of the Board of Advisors of Leeds Weld Equity Partners.
While I’ll probably be accused by some of undue paranoia, I’d respond that in the past two years we have seen corporate greed, self-dealing and self-delusion on a scale that continues to dwarf the most extreme accusations of Wall Street’s critics, and that it’s fair to ask whose interests are really being served by the expansion of charter schools like Green Dot.
And it’s fair for UFT members to ask if their union is making the correct choice in allying itself with corporate entities whose commitment to public education, and to the continued existence of strong, viable unions, is open to question.