New Roots Charter School in Ithaca Unionizes: Joint Statement About Voluntary Recognition

New Roots Charter School, located in downtown Ithaca, and with approximately 30 workers, recently unionized. Our Workers Rights Hotline and our organizing efforts were critical factors. The New Roots workers contacted us through the Hotline in October 2012, expressing interest in unionizing, but what union would help? We quickly hooked them up with organizers from New York State United Teachers (NYSUT/AFT). The Board and management of New Roots Charter School quickly decided to ‘voluntarily recognize’ the union without having to go through a vote: something exceedingly rare in labor history. The staff, Board and management are now preparing to negotiate their first contract.

JOINT STATEMENT ABOUT VOLUNTARY RECOGNITION OF New Roots Charter School Instructional Staff Association

On February 7, 2013, the New Roots Charter School Board of Trustees voted unanimously to voluntarily recognize the New Roots Charter School Instructional Staff Association. Principal Tina Nilsen-Hodges advocated for the board to take this action, saying “I support voluntary recognition because my philosophy and practice as school leader is to get behind staff initiatives intended to help us move towards our common goals.” The agreement was signed by Dr. Jason Hamilton, Chairman of the Board, and Zachary Lind, faculty member.

Lind and Nilsen-Hodges agreed that the ultimate goal is creating, in Lind’s words, “a positive educational environment for student learning.” Lind said that staff organizers felt that “establishing a union was in line with the ideals and values of New Roots Charter School.” As Nilsen-Hodges said, “New Roots will only survive and thrive if the people who are passionate about the school’s mission and intrinsically motivated to do the necessary work have a clear process that provides them with confidence that they are receiving the very best resources, time, and clarity about work conditions the school can offer. Having this process firmly in place will support peoples’ ability to focus on the reason we’re there, which is to create an optimal environment for student learning.”

In the school’s first few years, the organization’s focus has been on developing a quality educational program in line with the school’s mission to develop a “living laboratory” of education for sustainability and social justice. The often-daunting challenge of starting a school has required commitment above and beyond what anyone expected in the initial years, and employees have experienced many tensions arising from the demands of “growing” a start-up charter school.

“The school’s current employment policies were modeled on collective bargaining agreements from regional district schools,” Jason Hamilton, Chairman of the New Roots Board of Trustees, said. “This process will give us the opportunity to break new ground in crafting a clear articulation of terms and conditions that support the level of performance necessary to provide the high-quality education a charter school is accountable for within available resources, which are different than those of district schools. We anticipate breaking new ground and grappling with some tough questions as we address how to accomplish what we’re accountable for as we work within our limits.”

The instructional staff association, according to Lind, consists of faculty and staff at the school with the exception of employees with management responsibilities and adjunct teachers. This “wall to wall” association encompassing employees in different types of roles is also an innovative approach, creating another way for staff to work together towards creating a positive educational environment, Lind said.

“Charter schools are a different breed than district schools, accountable for the success of each and every student. I anticipate that we will be breaking new ground as we forge agreements that support the dynamic and amazing teachers who choose the demanding job of developing a “living laboratory of best practices in sustainability education” at a level of funding that we estimate to be 50% of the per pupil expenditures of some regional high schools,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “It’s a challenge, and those who embrace it deserve the very best that this tiny public school has to offer. I am excited to work with teachers to support the longevity of our best and brightest, and to transform the popular notion of what “teacher’s unions” do from stifling innovation and encouraging mediocrity to supporting and unleashing powerful, talented teachers in the best interests of students.”