Dozens fired at St. Paul charter school in suspected union retaliation

CSE is one of St. Paul’s largest Hmong charters with nearly 1,000 students and a budget of $9 million.

CSE is one of St. Paul’s largest Hmong charters with nearly 1,000 students and a budget of $9 million.

The Community School of Excellence, one of the largest Hmong charter schools in St. Paul, has a K-8 student population that is nearly 100 percent Hmong-American. Many of its students speak English as a second language, so the school employs a fleet of trained teachers and assistants to help them understand their classes.

On Monday, interim administrators Bao Vang and Kazoua Kong-Thao called a meeting with those 33 assistants and told them that their jobs were being terminated.

They also announced that all English as a second language teachers (ELL) for elementary students would be let go.

So far about 40 employees across various departments have been cut.

Assistant Billie Yang says he’s never seen such an extensive staff shakedown in his six years at the school.  He was perplexed when Vang and Kong-Thao explained that they wanted regular classroom teachers to fold the students’ language needs into their everyday curricula.

“When we were told that, we were like, ‘What?’ Two-thirds of our student population is ELL,” Yang says. “I don’t think you should be doing that if you’re not qualified. There are actual ELL teachers who went to school to obtain the skills to work with kids in ELL. So you’re going to do away with their jobs and have a classroom teacher try to implement what they know little about?" 

The Community School of Excellence in St. Paul.

The Community School of Excellence in St. Paul.

The 33 assistants were told that they will have the opportunity to come back to work in the fall, but only if they reapply for their jobs.

But administrators say they now want “interventionalists” to pull kids out of classes throughout the day and work on individual skills. They also want in-house, substitute teachers and staff to coordinate after-school activities. If the assistants have the qualifications for these reclassified positions, they could be hired back, says interim superintendent Vang.

It’s all a part of an overdue “restructuring” at Community School of Excellence, she says. The school has struggled with low test scores for years. In 2015, only 36 percent of students were proficient in math, 23 percent in reading, and 12 percent in science.

“I was brought on board to turn this school around,” Vang says. “If you expect change, if you want to increase the academic performance, you cannot hope to do the same thing every year and hope to gain.”

Teachers have long blamed the precarious test scores on high staff turnover, and a “culture of fear” that dominated under the school’s founding superintendent, Mo Chang.

Chang was investigated in 2013 for stealing from a federal lunch program, discouraging teachers from reporting suspicions of child abuse, and retaliating against staff who tried to unionize. Findings of wrongdoing caused the school’s charter authorizer, Concordia University, to call for her removal.

When Chang refused to leave, Concordia University announced that it would not renew its sponsorship. The school had to find a new authorizer before July 1 of this year or it would have to close, shutting out nearly 1,000 kids.

Teachers say work became enormously stressful during this uncertain time. Staff were investigated for whistleblowing, and sudden terminations abounded. In September 2014, teachers and staff unionized to bargain for a fair discipline process to precede surprise firings.

Shortly after unionizing, three Hmong office staff were fired. The National Labor Relations Board had to intervene and warn the school against punishing union activity.

The administration and the union have yet to agree on their first contract. All employees are still “at-will” employees, which means they could be fired at any time, for any reason.

For the past year, Community School of Excellence has been courting a new charter school authorizer, MN Guild, to take over. As negotiations progressed, Chang resigned suddenly at the beginning of this academic year.

Vang and Kong-Thao became the interim administrators, and kicked off their terms interviewing employees about how the new leadership could improve their working conditions.

The cuts handed down early this week seemed to tell teachers that little had changed.

Of the five members of the teacher union’s bargaining team, two are ELL teachers and two are assistants. The president of the union, Blythe Inners, has been teaching ELL for the past four years. She was told on Tuesday that she would not be “invited back” in the fall. She says that although the current bargaining team is all but dissolved, others will hopefully step up to take their places.

Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, plainly interprets the cuts as punishment of union leaders. Because firing individuals involved in union activity is illegal, wholesale “restructuring” is a convenient way to get rid of leaders among the rank and file.

“We’re shocked a school would decimate its curriculum to punish its employees for exercising their right to bargain collectively,” Education Minnesota president Denise Specht said. “It’s appalling that a school for an immigrant community would deny its students access to dedicated teachers of English language learners, gifted and talented programs, educational support staff and media specialists. We urge the administrators of the Community School of Excellence to reconsider these foolish and vindictive staff cuts and save their school.”

Billie Yang, who also sat on the bargaining team, says that was his initial interpretation as well.

“I kind of had a feeling that they were trying to phase out those of us who were in leadership roles within our bargaining unit,” he says. “They can’t just say you four or five are out, we’re not offering you a contract. They have to blow some smoke and make it seem like a legitimate process, to phase us out.”

As of Tuesday evening, Brad Blue, director of MN Guild, had not been told about the staff cuts and could not say how they would factor into his decision to sponsor the Community School of Excellence. On Wednesday, Blue responded to City Pages in a statement:

The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools was shocked and disheartened to learn of the employee terminations at Community School of Excellence on Tuesday, necessitating the elimination of important educational programs at the school. Yesterday’s programmatic and personnel actions have placed the transfer of CSE to the Minnesota Guild in jeopardy. We are disappointed by the developments and were unaware they were coming. The Guild Board and MDE had previously approved the Change in Authorizer (CIA) request which lists a number of specific terms and conditions. The recent actions have derailed this effort and the Guild now has serious concerns that the school will be able to fulfill the CIA obligations by the July 1st deadline. CSE’s administration has been plagued by substantive and well-documented issues for years. The Guild views the collective bargaining process as the primary means of addressing these issues and turning around the school. The Minnesota Guild believes a collaborative partnership between administrators and the educators who work directly with students is a crucial feature of a successful school. The Guild is deeply troubled by the staffing changes and firmly believes that the elimination of teachers in specific programs was tantamount to the eliminations of the programs themselves. Further, eliminating nearly all of the collective-bargaining team members, whose role was to work cooperatively with the school to achieve a fair contract for everyone, seriously calls to question how CSE intends to reach an agreement with its staff. It is our opinion that CSE has made significant proposed and unapproved changes to the learning program including the elimination of an ELL program for elementary students, as well as other programs integral to the mission of this school to best serve its students and community. Unless CSE chooses to change course and bargain in good faith with its employees, we do not see a way forward. We are saddened that CSE has chosen to place its staff, students, and the community-at-large in such a difficult and unnecessarily precarious position.

Meanwhile, Vang denies that the staff changes were made in retaliation of union activity.

“We haven’t finalized the restructuring process,” she says. “There are positions that are not being renewed. There are positions that have been folded into the restructure.”