City Paper is not for tourists
A former history teacher at the Cesar Chavez charter high school on Capitol Hill has accepted a $15,000 settlement to end his dispute with the school’s administration, which he claims fired him for trying to start a union.
David Krakow, 28, tells City Desk that, under the terms of the deal, the charter school has further agreed to tack up a rather striking notice, which reads in part:
“FEDERAL LAW GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO:
Form, join or assist a union; Choose representatives to bargain with us on your behalf; Act together with other employees for your benefit and protection; Choose not to engage in any of these protected activities. In recognition of our employees’ rights:
WE WILL NOT coerce you by telling you that you can not engage in protected concerted activities. WE WILL NOT tell you that you are not a good fit, because you engage in protected concerted activities.
WE WILL NOT tell you that the school will close if you continue your union activities and/or protected concerted activities.
Terri Smyth-Riding, director of human resources for Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools For Public Policy, which operates the school, confirmed the amount of the settlement. However, she denied that Krakow was fired for his unionizing efforts. To the contrary, she explains, “We did not want to incur any further legal expense.”
The dispute started in February 2009, when Krakow says he and some other teachers began meeting at coffee shops to discuss problems at the high school, located at 709 12th Street SE. According to Krakow, the teachers gabbed about lots of work-related issues, but one emerged as a primary concern: Chavez was bleeding talent.
Though the D.C. Charter School Board doesn’t keep data on teacher retention for individual schools, a spokesperson for the board noted that in 2008 and 2009, Chavez charter schools, as a whole, managed to retain only 53 percent of its faculty.
At the Capitol Hill campus, Krakow says, it felt like about a third of the faculty disappeared each year.
The teachers’ group figured the problem was that faculty members weren’t getting their needs met by the administration. So they decided to try to change that.
The group made it a point to not call itself a union, Krakow says. “People as an entire faculty couldn’t get behind a traditional union,” he explains. Nonetheless, in March 2009, the group began acting like one. It drafted a letter to school leaders asking for a revamp of teacher contracts. Among their requests:
“Having fewer than twenty students per class and eighty students total in order to make teachers much more effective and students more successful…
“Limited class size and adequate prep time…
“Limiting the number of teacher work days before the school year…
“Publishing a pay scale…”
The letter also seemingly attempted to set up labor negotiations:
“We plan to elect representatives shortly and we would like to schedule a meeting with the representatives and you for the week after spring break to begin this collaboration.”
Though the correspondence was signed by members of the Capitol Hill faculty, Krakow says it was clear that he was spearheading the effort. Not long after the letter, the school informed him that his contract wouldn’t be renewed.
Smyth-Riding says Krakow was let go for “legitimate business reasons,” adding, “It had a lot to do with our finances.” She described Krakow as a good employee, but that the school couldn’t afford his position anymore.
But Krakow says he got a different answer during a meeting with Garrett Phelan, the school’s principal at the time. “You’re not a good fit for the school,” he recalled the ex-administrator as saying.
That baffled the employee, as he’d gotten positive work evaluations and had recently been promoted to the position of faculty mentor, a gig that essentially involved helping other teachers up their skills, he says.
Things became a lot clearer when he met with Sean Hanover, then the school’s human resources director, Krakow says. “He told me the school was fundamentally opposed to unions.” Hanover also told him that if Chavez teachers were to ever form a union, the school would shut down in retaliation, he says.
Krakow decided not to take the ousting lying down. In March, he filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which often mediates these types of disputes.
Smyth-Ridingsays that while the school has never had a union, employees are welcomed to form one. She dismissed Krakow’s claim that Chavez is anti-union as “groundless.” She says Chavez has never had union for a very simple reason: its teachers are too content. “Our employees feel like they have an HR department where they can come down and voice their concerns,” she says.
During its own independent investigation of Krakow’s complaint, however, the NLRB “found reasonable cause to believe that some of the allegations of the charge were meritorious,” says Wayne Gold, the board’s regional director. The agency issued a complaint accusing Phaelen, Hanover, and the school’s vice-principal, Arturo Martinez, of union busting.
According to the NLRB complaint, investigators believe Phealan coerced teachers by telling them they couldn’t engage in “protected concerted activity” and had also fired employees for engaging in similar activities. Investigators also backed up the allegation that Hanover had “threatened and coerced employees with school closure.”
Under NLRB guidelines, Krakow would have been eligible for an award of up to $5,000 in lost wages, as a result of the investigation’s findings. However, the two sides agreed to settle for triple that amount prior to a scheduled April 7 hearing with NLRB.
Smyth-Riding insists that the settlement was not an acknowledgement of any wrongdoing on the school’s part. “Multiple people who engaged in the same activities still work at Chavez,” she says.
But Krakow, who has since found a new job at a private school in Bethesda, argues that point is irrelevant. “They only have to fire enough people to make everyone else afraid,” he says. “Often firing one person is enough.”