Teachers seek to form union at California charter school chaired by Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of District of Columbia's public schools, made a name for herself as one of the nation's chief critics of teachers unions and a prominent evangelist for charter schools, which are for the most part union-free. Now, Rhee leads a small network of California charter schools — and its teachers are seeking to form a union.

A majority of teachers at Sacramento's St. Hope Public Schools — founded nearly 15 years ago by Rhee's husband, former NBA star and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson — have signed a petition asking to join the Sacramento City Teachers Association, according to the association's John Borsos. The Sacramento local is affiliated with the powerful California Teachers Association (CTA) and the National Education Association, the nation's largest labor union.

Kingsley Melton, a government teacher at St. Hope's Sacramento Charter High School, said that he and his colleagues are concerned about what he described as unsustainably high teacher turnover. As much as 40 percent of teachers leave and must be replaced each year, according to Melton, who partly blamed the uncertainty of year-to-year contracts and compensation that can fluctuate unpredictably from one year to the next. The Washington Post could not independently confirm the turnover rate.

"We're all at-will employees, we have no rights, and our payment swings by $10,000 based on the observations of one often overworked and inconsistent principal," Melton said. "If you're young and planning a family, it's very difficult to gain stability."

Melton also said he and other teachers have not been able to get clear information about school budgets, and he hopes a contract will improve financial transparency.

In response to a request for comment on the teachers' complaints and their petition to organize, St. Hope Public Schools released a statement: "The fact the CTA has brought outside media attention to this shows that their priority is on creating national political theatrics. While that's unfortunate, the focus of St. HOPE Public Schools will remain on students and ensuring they get the education they deserve."

Rhee, who has served as chair of the St. Hope board since 2014, did not respond to a separate request for comment. She previously founded and led StudentsFirst, an organization that gave her a national platform to advocate for the kinds of policies she pushed for in D.C. and that drew ire from unions, such as evaluating teachers in part based on test scores, firing teachers who perform poorly and giving financial bonuses to those who exceed expectations.

St. Hope is composed of several campuses that together employ roughly 100 teachers, according to the Sacramento union, and that serve more than 1,600 children in kindergarten through 12th grade. St. Hope focuses on preparing low-income and minority children for college.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, and most employ non-unionized teachers. In 2012, 7 percent of charter schoolteachers nationwide belonged to a union, according to a survey by the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter advocacy group.

Unions have been eager to expand that foothold. The Sacramento local has found more success than most: With the recognition of a union at St. Hope, the proportion of city charter schoolteachers in a union would reach 60 percent.

To be recognized as a union, the employees of St. Hope submitted a petition to the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), a board spokesman confirmed. PERB is responsible for certifying the union after confirming that the proposed bargaining unit has majority support among its members, a process that could take as little as two weeks or as long as 180 days, depending on whether the school's management challenges the process.

Melton, the St. Hope teacher, said that he and his colleagues intend to bargain for their own contract, separate from the contract that governs teachers' employment in Sacramento's public school system. He said they want to maintain their independence from that traditional bureaucracy.

"Many of my co-workers love that we're a charter, because it allows us to try so many things and be on the cutting edge of education," Melton said.