Charter school teachers claim intimidation over union

Community School of Excellence, a Hmong charter school in St. Paul, has inspired a federal labor lawsuit.

Community School of Excellence, a Hmong charter school in St. Paul, has inspired a federal labor lawsuit.

When teachers voted to form a union at St. Paul’s Community School of Excellence last June, they hoped administrators would quit intimidating employees for uttering anything critical of how the beleaguered K-8 charter school is run.

Union or no, Superintendent Mo Chang continues to reprimand teachers for disagreeing with her, ordering them to get her approval for staff-wide emails and placing union leaders on “performance improvement plans” that have nothing to do with the quality of their teaching, says Eric Johnson, who has worked at the school for the past four years.

Johnson was placed on an improvement plan last November so that he could work on his “professionalism” – a move he views as retaliation for brewing a storm over the school's questionable use of federal funds and its reporting of child abuse.

In 2012, the Minnesota Department of Education investigated allegations that Community School of Excellence billed federal free lunch programs for meals that students didn’t eat, as well as complaints that Superintendent Chang discouraged staff from notifying Child Protective Services when they suspected students were being abused at home. Though teachers are mandated reporters by law, Chang preferred to investigate possible abuse herself, according to employees.

The state substantiated both accusations, ultimately fining the school $200,000. As a result, the charter’s authorizer and oversight body, Concordia University, declared in September it would sever ties with the school. Concordia will officially exit in June 2016.

"Basically we've got one person who’s kinda running the whole show and they’re running it pretty rottenly," Johnson says. "Nothing has changed, and because we have this school board that is just a complete rubber stamp for whatever [Chang] does, she basically runs roughshod over the whole operation."

Staff turnover was 26 percent in the 2014-15 school year as 42 employees out of 163 total resigned or were fired. Those who stayed are warned against having "negative conversations" at staff meetings, and investigated if they ever question leadership, teachers say.

For example, after Concordia withdrew its support, Chang had all staff sign a letter expressing full faith in their school. When Johnson complained about their lack of choice in the matter, that was construed as a negative comment. He was also told that he would not be allowed to send all-staff emails without advance permission. 

Another teacher was also placed on an improvement plan for allegedly rallying staff against the administration. She was ordered not to publicly criticize the school. Other teachers active in the union have received verbal and written reprimands. 

"Anybody that acts as a voice for other people or tries to make some changes is going to get heavily intimidated or bullied," Johnson says. "Most school teachers who don’t necessarily have this lightning streak of revolt in their bodies, they just quietly leave." 

Three teachers, including Johnson, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board accusing Chang and other administrators of threatening union members. The Board investigated over the past several months, ultimately filing a complaint this summer against Community School of Excellence on the teachers' behalf. 

Chang did not respond to requests for comment. The school's lawyers filed a response with the National Labor Relations Board Thursday admitting that teachers were reprimanded and placed on performance plans, but denying doing so in order to discourage union organizing. 

Next, both parties will have the chance to gather evidence in preparation for a hearing before an administrative law judge, who will ultimately decide whether Community School of Excellence violated the National Labor Relations Act when it comes to restricting employee communication.

"We’re hoping to alert the entire staff that these things are not legal, and we’re looking to change the practices of the administration at the school," Johnson says.

Send news tips to Susan Du.