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St. Paul Hmong charter school hires back teachers, narrowly escapes closure

The Community School of Excellence was so close to making a smooth transition to a new authorizer when the interim superintendent started laying off a bunch of teachers without warning.

The Community School of Excellence was so close to making a smooth transition to a new authorizer when the interim superintendent started laying off a bunch of teachers without warning.

The Community School of Excellence, a Hmong K-8 charter school in St. Paul, had one critical job to accomplish by July 1 in order to stay open.

Charter schools need an authorizer – a separate, sponsoring body – in order to operate in Minnesota. The Community School of Excellence’s last authorizer, Concordia University, chose not to renew its contract in 2015 after investigations found that the school’s founding superintendent stole from a federal lunch program, pressured teachers to keep silent about suspected child abuse, and instilled a culture of fear among her staff.

Though Concordia repeatedly asked the board of directors to fire the superintendent or risk shuttering the school with its 1,000 students, the board chose the latter.

As a result, the school was left to find a new authorizer by July. It began to court MN Guild, which authorizes more than a dozen charter schools. Before MN Guild would sign, however, it needed assurances that the school would make an honest effort to repair the chaos of previous years.

MN Guild wanted to raise its perennially low test scores. One way to do so was to minimize disruption by improving the teacher retention rate.

The school’s new leadership was not to continue firing teachers suddenly and without warning – especially not in retaliation for union activity, for which the National Labor Relations Board cited the school in 2014.

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Bao Vang – CEO of the nonprofit Hmong American Partnership, which receives a $1 million busing contract from the school every year – served as interim superintendent. Things seemed to be going swimmingly until early June, when she announced an academic “restructuring” that meant discontinuing the contracts of dozens of teachers and staff.

More than 30 teacher assistants were told they needed to reapply for their jobs in order to return to work next fall. All the English Language Learner teachers at the elementary level were not “invited back.”

The same thing happened to teachers in the gifted and talented program. Four out of five members of the teachers union’s bargaining team were slashed this way – then apparently saved when the media started reporting the cuts.

"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."

Brad Blue, director of MN Guild, was also caught off guard. He hadn’t heard of any “restructuring” plans before the mass firings. “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,” Blue said.

Community School of Excellence staff unionized two years ago following a rocky campaign, during which three Hmong union leaders were fired. But they were never able to agree on a contract that would include a fair disciplinary and termination process.

Vang, educational consultant Tou Ger Xiong, and PTO president William Siong – whose wife is a school administrator – arranged an informational session at Hmong American Partnership to fill parents in on how the school’s future became jeopardized. Teachers who had been fired sat in the back of the room with their children in their laps, wearing green stickers reading, “Save our school.” They were not given a chance to speak. Parents were not given a chance to ask questions.

Lilly Yang, a mother of three students, summarized, "The meeting to me, I felt very disappointed. What I expected from that meeting was for [administrators] to lay out their [restructuring] plans so that as parents, we can see what are the conflicts between the plans and Mr. Blue's conditions. I was hoping to see that and hear that, but I did not see that."

Instead, Vang used the session as an opportunity to discredit teachers and the union.

Though many faculty contracts had already been discontinued, Vang admitted that she did not have a concrete restructuring plan to share. “The plan is not set in stone and parts are still being developed. We will continue to listen to important feedback from stakeholders.”

It's still not clear what restructuring would have entailed. In an all-staff meeting at school, Vang had assured teachers that the board of directors actively voted to approve the staff cuts. Later, she confirmed in an email that, "There have been no written staff restructuring plans, blueprints, or reports submitted to or approved by the board of directors," prior to when everyone started getting laid off. Just "oral updates on these issues at various board meetings."

Xiong called on MN Guild to fulfill its promise to authorize the school. 

But MN Guild was unmoved. The school needed to resolve its labor issues and restore the staff and programs that were cut.

The school quietly hired all but a few teachers back. Finally, on Wednesday, the school ratified its first teachers contract. It includes a grievance process for disputes and a new rule that educators must now receive due process before they are fired.

“It has been a difficult journey to get here,” said union president Blythe Inners, who was fired and then rehired. “The educators of CSE voted to create this local two years ago because we cared enough about our school to make it a stable place to work. Today we reached a milestone.”

On Friday, MN Guild will finalize its contract to authorize Community School of Excellence through the next three years. The school will remain open after all.

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