The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teachers at D.C.’s only unionized charter school sign a contract, a first for the city

The Mundo Verde union is represented by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union. Randi Weingarten is the federation’s longtime president. (Colin Boyle/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)

Teachers and staff members at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School are nearing a historic moment: They’re a vote away from settling with their bosses on a union contract, the first time that has happened at a D.C. charter school.

Workers at the popular language immersion charter school in Northwest Washington formed the D.C. charter sector’s only union in July. Another school, Chavez Prep Middle, formed a union in 2018, but negotiations stalled and school leaders shut down the campus before reaching a labor agreement with educators.

Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run, and unlike the traditional public school system, their teachers are not typically unionized. But across the country, teachers at a relatively small but growing number of charter campuses are organizing.

D.C.’s only unionized charter school filed another federal complaint — this time as its campus is shutting down.

Many leaders of the charter school movement oppose unionization, believing it results in the same bureaucratic thicket that charter schools were created to escape.

But union leaders view the Mundo Verde contract as a significant win and hope it serves as a model for educators at other schools who hope to unionize.

“D.C. has been a petri dish for all of the different kinds of structures of educating children,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “You now not only have a blueprint for D.C. schools, but for thousands of schools around the country.”

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, represents the union at Mundo Verde, which has about 600 students. Weingarten said her office has fielded calls from other D.C. charter school employees hoping to unionize after they heard of Mundo Verde’s organizing efforts.

In the District, more than 40 percent of D.C.’s public school students attend a charter campus.

The language immersion school has a second campus in Northeast D.C. that is not unionized.

The Mundo Verde union still has to vote to approve the contract. Because the pact has not been finalized, union members did not divulge specifics of the contract. But they said it secures higher pay for staff members. The average Mundo Verde teacher salary in 2018 was $57,388.78, according to city data.

Mundo Verde teachers are trying to unionize in a rare move.

Charter school teachers are typically at-will employees, which means they can easily be fired so long as the reason is not illegal. Under the contract, teachers gain protections, with the school adopting what is known as a progressive discipline process. Under that policy, employees facing discipline or dismissal will receive an initial warning before potentially being fired if offenses persist.

If the infractions are not egregious, administrators must devise an improvement plan for staff members before they are fired. Teachers who are chronically late, for example, are not considered prime offenders.

If staff members believe they were fired unfairly, they can lodge a grievance and their situations will be reviewed.

“One of the big wins across the board is having a voice in decision-making — that’s been huge,” said Dani McCormick, a fourth-grade teacher who is part of the union’s bargaining team. “Overall, we have more protections and resources than we have ever had.”

The efforts to unionize at Mundo Verde were quietly underway for months this year, but organizers encountered a hurdle in July when the school administration failed to voluntarily recognize the union by a deadline set by staff members.

Federal law says that if administrators do not recognize a union, workers can file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board leading to an election involving school employees to decide whether to form a union. McCormick said more than 75 percent of employees voted to form the union.

The Mundo Verde union and school administrators said once the union was formed, campus leaders negotiated in good faith.

“The agreement reflects our school values, ensures the success of students, upholds equity of wages/benefits across diverse categories of employees, and recognizes long-term financial sustainability of our organization,” Kristin Scotchmer, executive director of Mundo Verde, wrote in a letter to families explaining negotiations. “We approached the process of negotiating a contract in good faith, maintaining a consistent presence of our leadership team at the bargaining table for a significant period of time since July 2019.”

Mundo Verde union members are working to translate the contract for Spanish-speaking teachers before they vote on it. They hope to have a vote in the coming weeks.

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news