Phila.'s New Media charter school contends it's not a public school

Posted: July 02, 2011

A Philadelphia charter school fighting a unionizing effort is trying to break legal ground by contending that it is not a public school - even though it's funded entirely by taxpayers.

The move by New Media Technology Charter School, which receives more than $5 million in public money annually to educate 450 students, is drawn from the playbook of a charter in Chicago that is part of a controversial network of Turkish-run charter schools.

The Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy Charter School - one of 120 schools nationwide inspired by the teachings of Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen - asserted in papers filed with the National Labor Relations Board that it is not a public school or "a political subdivision" of the state of Illinois. If it prevails, it would be exempt from a state law that permits charter staff to unionize.

The full NLRB has not ruled on the matter, though the school lost a preliminary round when the regional director ruled that it was a public school overseen by the Chicago school district.

"We think it's outrageous that these charter school operators would accept all this public money and then turn around and say they are not accountable to the public," said Shaun Richmond, deputy director of organization and field services at the American Federation of Teachers, which is involved in the Philadelphia and Chicago cases.

Michael A. Frattone, New Media's general counsel, said the school has taken the stance that it is governed by the NLRB, rather than Pennsylvania's labor law.

At a state hearing in May, Steven R. Paisner, the attorney handling New Media's labor case, told an examiner for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry that the school "takes the position that it is not a public employer within the meaning" of Pennsylvania's Public Employee Relations Act.

Teachers and professional staff had asked the school to voluntarily recognize the union and waive an election after more than 60 percent of staff - twice the number required by state law - signed petitions in the spring saying they wanted to be represented by the Alliance of Charter School Employees, an affiliate of the state AFT.

Even if stymied on a state level, the teachers could eventually organize under NLRB regulations, but the effort to avoid state jurisdiction put off any union election during the school year that just ended. Richmond accused the school of a "delaying tactic."

Several New Media teachers said they wanted to form a union to have a voice in the school's educational policies such as discipline and a lack of books and supplies without fear of reprisal. The teachers, who asked not to be named, described a school that has been "chaotically administered."

New Media, which enrolls students from grades 5 through 12 on campuses in Germantown and Stenton, has had a turbulent history since its founding in 2004.

Ina Walker, the former chief executive, and Hugh C. Clark, the former board president, were indicted by a federal grand jury in April and charged with stealing $522,000 in taxpayer funds partly to support a small private school they controlled, a health food restaurant, and a health food store.

They are scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in January.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission required New Media to sever ties with Walker and Clark and install a new board in order to get its charter renewed in 2010.

Charter schools often balk at unionizing efforts, charging that negotiating contracts will erode the flexibility and experimentation upon which the schools were founded.

Nevertheless, staff at several of Pennsylvania's 135 charters and 12 cyber charters have succeeded in unionizing. Five city charters are represented by affiliates of AFT Pennsylvania.

Donnamarie Parker, New Media's chief executive, is a former principal at West Oak Lane Charter School, where teachers have been unionized since 1999.

Parker and Wanda Bailey-Green, president of New Media's board, referred all labor questions to Frattone who said in an e-mail that the school respects the rights of its employees to form a union.

Once the question of jurisdiction is settled, he said "New Media employees will have an opportunity to vote on this matter."

He said if they choose to form a union "the school will bargain in good faith."

But Richmond questioned the school's motives, and said it had fired five employees who were active in the unionization drive.

The five were told last month that their one-year contracts would not be renewed.

The union filed a charge of unfair labor practices with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, alleging New Media terminated the staffers in retaliation for their union involvement.

Frattone said he could not comment on personnel matters, but added that all staffers are 10-month employees. He said the union drive was not a factor in the decisions.

The push for charters to be covered by the NLRB emerged at Chicago Mathematics, one of 25 charters focusing on math and science in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri run by Concept Schools, a management company founded by two Turkish educators.

As The Inquirer has reported, the FBI and the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education are investigating allegations that Turkish charter-school staffers working in this country on H1-B visas kick back part of their salaries to a Muslim movement founded by Gulen, who lives in exile in the Poconos.

In Philadelphia, Truebright Science Academy in North Philadelphia is the sole school inspired by Gulen. It gets $3 million in public funds, but its teachers have not sought to be unionized.

In March, Tansu Cidav, Truebright's acting chief executive officer, described it as a regular public school.

"Charter schools are public schools," he said. "We follow the state curriculum."


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at martha.woodall@phillynews.com

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