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Teachers at Kauffman School want it to be Kansas City’s first ever unionized charter

A large concrete rectangle sits in the snow in front of a modern, three-story building with lots of windows. The concrete block is a sign in front of the school. It reads "Ewing Marion Kauffman School."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Nearly 100 teachers are unionizing at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School. They say they want to reduce staff turnover and increase pay.

Nearly 100 teachers at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School are unionizing in an effort to reduce teacher turnover and raise their pay. If they win recognition, they will be only the second charter school in Missouri to unionize.

After two years of organizing, nearly 100 teachers at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School have officially declared their intent to unionize. The school, located on The Paseo and 63rd Street, serves nearly 1,000 fifth through 12th graders. The group will join American Federation of Teachers Local 691, which also represents Kansas City Public Schools.

The teachers are organizing to reduce high staff turnover, low pay and a lack of breaks. They also want a more manageable workload, better recruitment of substitute teachers and for EMKS to provide better support for its students.

Julian Vizitei teaches 12th grade government at the school. He says the unionization effort arose during the pandemic when the school was online.

“Teachers are struggling, kids are struggling, families are struggling. I mean, every part of the school system is as struggling,” Vizitei said. “This is not a unique Kauffman problem — there is an issue within education. But I really thought to myself, ‘What can I control?’ And the thing I can control is what we do at our school.”

If successful, the school will be only the second charter school in the state to unionize — and the largest. Teachers at KIPP St. Louis High School voted to unionize with AFT in November 2022.

In a statement, Katie Pasniewksi, the chief operating officer of the school, said the school is aware of the efforts to unionize.

“AFT is within its legal right to organize employees for the purpose of collective bargaining,” Pasniewksi said. “EMKS is focused on the best interests of students and families. We have provided a positive environment for learning and supporting every student in achieving their full potential.”

Jason Roberts, president of AFT Local 691, said the unionization drive ultimately comes down to respect. The organizers claim that some teachers at EMKS are making about $36,000, one of the lowest teacher salaries in the Kansas City area. Pasniewksi said the base salary for all teachers at the school is $40,000 and EMKS plans to raise starting salary to $43,000 next school year.

Roberts said low pay would not happen with a union contract.

“When you look around and you're working really hard — and Kauffman makes its teachers work really hard, that is kind of an industry standard — you say, ‘I'm with you because I believe in your mission and your vision, but at what cost?’” Roberts said. “The cost is almost 10 grand less than if I just jumped ship and go somewhere else.”

EMKS was founded in 2011, and only a few teachers who were on the staff when the school opened remain there. Vizitei said most teachers only stay for an average of three years. He says he’s concerned about how the high turnover affects students and new teachers who need support.

“I can think of a list of people who are amazing teachers who just couldn't maintain the workload,” Vizitei said. “You go to other schools, and it's like there's a whole plethora of teachers who have been there for years (that) have all this institutional knowledge. It’s not helpful to kids to continue cycling through.”

Natasha Waschek teaches ninth grade English and has been with EMKS for four years. Every school year, she returns to new teachers. Waschek says she believes teachers aren’t leaving because they had difficult students, but because “their emotional labor is not compensated or appreciated to the caliber that I think they deserve.”

“What is best for kids and what is best for schools is when teachers stay and they build relationships with kids and they watch kids grow and pour life into them,” Waschek says. “This is a way that we can keep great human beings that are good for kids, that are good for staff in the building and doing what it is that they love on a regular basis for hopefully a long period of time.”

EMKS administration and management found out about the unionizing campaign a few months before the teachers went public. The teachers claim they have been subject to an extensive union-busting campaign since.

In response, AFT Local 691 has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the school and is awaiting the results.

According to the complaint, the school hired an anti-union law firm to hold one-on-one meetings with teachers to dissuade them from unionizing, implemented illegitimate performance improvement plans and disciplined employees for not meeting them, interrogated employees about union activity and their position on unions and told the employees forming a union would block the changes they wanted and upset the workplace dynamic.

Vizitei says some administrators have told him that they were afraid to talk to organizing teachers “because they don’t want to get in trouble.” Roberts says that is antithetical to the union’s goals.

“As president of this local I have never, ever reprimanded or sought to reprimand an administrator for having a relationship and conversation with teachers,” Roberts said. “So to say that ‘I'm afraid that I won't be able to talk to you anymore’ is really not even in line with some of the basic tenets of what a union believes.”

Teachers sent a letter to school administrators asking them to stop spending money on union-busting and instead put that money towards teacher retention and family support services.

Pasniewksi said the school is operating within its legal rights.

“We have and will continue to provide staff with lawful and truthful information so staff can make an educated decision as to whether a union is right for them, their family, their students, and their classroom,” she said in a statement.

Lyndsay Yates has been at EWKS for five years and teaches a ninth grade freshman seminar class. She says the union-busting campaign has instead brought the teachers closer.

“I have actually never felt more joyful with my coworkers – I think because we're doing this and because we're having conversations and actively connecting with each other in ways that we haven't before,” Yates said. “(The pushback) has made me realize these are the people that I'm here to fight for because I love these people.”

The EMKS Alumni Association opposes the union. In a statement to KCUR, they said they believe a union "would do grave damage to student success and incentives."

"We as the Alumni Association have a called an emergency meeting of our Alumni Board of Directors and General Membership to develop a petition fighting this effort to unionize representing the students and the families."

"These teachers have divided the Kauffman School Staff in an effort to seek greed and pleasure in a situation that will only hurt student culture and success."

Unionization among charter school teachers has been down in the past decade. In 2009-10, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported 12% of schools nationwide participated in unions. By 2018-19 — the most recent year in the organization's data — only a little more than 10% of schools were unionized.

Now, the numbers are rising. There are currently about 7,500 AFT members who work in charter schools nationwide. This school year, four new charter schools won union recognition and more are waiting on elections. KIPP in St. Louis was one of the schools that recently won its election.

Titilayo Adelusola teaches sixth grade math. She’s been at EMKS for two years — the teachers’ union campaign has been active the entire time she’s been at the school. She hopes EMKS will be next on the growing list of schools that have won their union elections.

“This is just a really wonderful opportunity we have to effect change in a positive way,” Adelusola said. “Our kids deserve to have the support of adults who are also supported, so this is a wonderful way for us to build community with one another and really make that positive change.”

Roberts is confident the teachers at EMKS will soon be a part of AFT Local 691. He says he believes that once they’re successful, other charter schools in the metro will unionize as well.

“I think what we'll see is a realization among all of the other charter schools in the metro, that ‘If they can do it, and they can go up against the money and power of Kauffman, then we can do it,’” Roberts said.

Corrected: January 25, 2023 at 3:45 PM CST
A previous version of this story stated that only one teacher has been on staff at EMKS since it opened in 2011. That figure has been changed, as KCUR received conflicting reports of how many teachers have remained with the school since its founding.

This story was updated to include a statement from the Alumni Association of the Ewing Marion Kauffman School opposing the unionization effort.

It was also updated to clarify that while union organizers say there are some teachers making $36,000, school administrators say the base salary for all teachers at the school is $40,000.
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