Union wins victory in legal fight over KIPP charter school in South Bronx

A federal court dealt a blow Tuesday to the KIPP charter network in its legal fight with New York City’s teachers union over a KIPP school in the South Bronx.

The dispute, which prompted the charter network to file a federal lawsuit last March, centers on KIPP Academy Charter School  — the first of the network’s schools to open in the city — and whether it is covered by the contract between the city and the United Federation of Teachers.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit refused to block the union from enforcing its contract at the school, effectively dismissing  KIPP’s lawsuit.

“We’ll review this decision and determine the next steps needed to ensure our teachers voices are heard and their decisions given the respect they deserve,” KIPP Superintendent Jim Manly wrote in a statement.

KIPP’s lawsuit was filed last year, a few months after explosive allegations from the UFT claiming that the school threatened to fire teachers who didn’t vote to decertify the union — a case that is being considered by the National Labor Relations Board. (A previous decertification effort, in 2009, was unsuccessful.)

Most charter schools are not unionized — a feature, many operators argue, that is essential for sidestepping burdensome rules that get in the way of offering a sound education. But KIPP Academy is a “conversion” charter school, an unusual arrangement in which a traditional public school morphs into a charter. The UFT argues that under state law its conversion status means its staff is covered by the contract that governs traditional public schools.

KIPP, on the other hand, has argued that its teachers never voted for union representation, and that the union historically has not represented the school’s teachers. “Other than collecting union dues from KIPP teachers and staff, the UFT never carried out any representative functions in relation to them,” according to KIPP’s complaint.

The dispute about whether the union’s contract applies also stems from a laundry list of contract violations brought by the UFT, and the union’s insistence that those complaints be heard by an arbitrator. Union officials said the complaints were motivated by a group of staff members who raised objections to their working conditions.

In 2016, a state judge refused to block the arbitration process, a partial victory for the UFT.

“Court after court has found that KIPP Academy needs to resolve these contract complaints rather than seeking to use the legal system to avoid its obligations,” UFT general counsel Adam Ross said in a statement on Tuesday.

For their part, KIPP staffers have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a vote to decertify the union — a case that is still pending. On Tuesday, KIPP officials said the charter network wants to hold that vote as soon as possible.

“We’re steadfast in our belief that our teachers deserve the chance to vote about UFT representation,” KIPP’s Manly said.