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As Teachers Unionize, Detroit Charter Company Leaves School

As teachers at a Detroit charter school prepare to vote on unionization, they've run into an unexpected obstacle: The company that founded the school is walking away from it.

University YES Academy was founded in 2010 with the goal of high rates of graduation and college attendance. Currently K-10, the school has been adding one grade each year and has a projected student population of just over 1,100 for the 2015-16 school year.

Last fall, teachers at the school started organizing to be represented by the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff, an affiliate of AFT Michigan. It's an unusual move for a charter, but certainly not unheard of—Michigan Live reports that three other Detroit-area charters have already unionized, and two more are currently in the process.

Shortly after UYA teachers began organizing, however, they hit opposition from New Urban Learning, the company that runs the school. "They threatened, they interrogated folks, they insinuated that foundations wouldn't continue to donate to the school," said Nate Walker of AFT Michigan. Teachers were suspended, then reinstated days later.

All of this led to Michigan ACTS filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the teachers. Following an investigation and official complaint by the NLRB, the company reached a settlement with the union in March.

Despite the company's efforts, UYA teachers filed a petition to unionize in late March and, on April 8, Michigan ACTS and New Urban Learning reached an agreement to hold union elections. Within 48 hours of that agreement, New Urban Learning had informed UYA leadership and key stakeholders in the charter that the company would be ending its relationship with the school.

If the company is bluffing, they're hiding it wellWalker says that at the April 21 school board meeting, the board announced that they would be accepting applications for an educational services provider to take over running the school. They plan on closing submissions on May 1 and say they hope to have a decision by May 17. That's pretty quick turnaround, but it's likely necessary given that the school needs to finalize a budget by July 1.

Teachers have been largely shut out of the process, based on proceedings so far: The board meeting where they might have been able to provide feedback was scheduled for the middle of the school day. "It is extremely frustrating that we can't attend a meeting that will impact the future of our school," 7th grade teacher Debra Chen told the Michigan ACTS. "We delivered a request to change the meeting that was signed by a majority of our staff to Bishop Edgar Vann, the Board Chair, and he flat out told us no."

Regardless of the future of New Urban Learning's involvement with the school, UYA teachers are moving ahead with the unionization processon May 6, they'll vote on whether or not they want to be represented by the union.

Two other Detroit charters, University Prep and University Prep Science and Math, are also in the process of unionizing. While the process has been a bit smoother there, the schools' management company, Detroit 90/90, has spoken out against the effort, saying that teachers already have a strong relationship with the company and there's no need to bring in "a third party that may not have the best interests for our teachers in mind." Though they have yet to take any action, rumors have been floating about their own contract, which is also up for renewal in June.

At the time this was posted, New Urban Learning had not responded to requests for comment.

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