Staff at a Queens charter school that is represented by several city labor unions are growing frustrated with the unions, which they worry sat quietly by while state lawmakers slashed charter school budgets two weeks ago.
The school, Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, is expecting a cut of between $500,000 and $600,000 from what was projected for next year after state lawmakers froze planned funding increases to charter schools two weeks ago.
Charter school activists have said that they’re hopeful that Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who founded another unionized charter school in Queens, will yet restore the extra funds to charter schools, but no deal has been struck yet.
That leaves teachers at Renaissance planning for possible teacher layoffs and big program cuts. (The $500,000 cut from the increase the school was expecting is especially hard to shoulder given that pension costs are skyrocketing by $300,000 next year and teacher salaries are slated to go up.)
A main frustration, a Renaissance administrator said, is that the unions to which Renaissance’s staff belong did not give them a heads up about the cuts — even though staff repeatedly asked union leaders if they should expect a cut. “Our members here feel shafted,” Nicholas Tishuk, Renaissance’s director of programs and accountability, said. “We were told that this charter school cut was mentioned two months ago, and it hasn’t been on anyone’s lips. And then we find out the Sunday night before the vote on Tuesday that not only was it on everyone’s lips; it’s actually happening.”
Most charter schools in New York City are not represented by teachers unions, since the schools operate outside of the Department of Education and therefore do not see their staffs unionize automatically. But the union has fought to bring charter schools teachers into its fold. Their slow but steady inclusion has put the union in the tricky position of on the one hand lobbying for limits on charter schools, while, on the other hand, representing some charter school staff.
Renaissance teachers had joined other charter school union members in a campaign to lobby against possible cuts to charter schools after a New York State teachers union official, Alan Lubin, indicated in February that he supported slashing funds to charter schools. Charter school supporters said that what he called for would have amounted to a double cut for charter schools, whose funding is based on the amount of money that goes to traditional public schools.
The concerns led a group of charter school teachers represented by unions to plan a press conference that would have called on the president of the New York City and national teachers union, Randi Weingarten, to denounce Lubin’s testimony. But the press conference was canceled after Weingarten wrote a letter to charter school teachers assuring them that she does not support unequal cuts. (Peter Murphy, of the New York State Charter School Association, first reported the canceled press conference on his blog.)
Tishuk, who as an administrator at Renaissance belongs to the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said that he also reached out to his union for advice, and was told by president Ernest Logan that he had not heard of any cuts. (I’ve yet to speak to Logan about this; I will report back with a comment from him.)
Tishuk said that representatives of the city teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, came to Renaissance last week to discuss concerns about the budget with staff, meeting first with Renaissance teachers and then with administrators. Tishuk said that staff members did not leave satisfied.
“We don’t think that it’s consistent to have a union charter school basically lose the support of the union. There’s plenty of political back and forth — they say the numbers are this, we say the numbers are that – but no matter how you cut it, next year I’m doing a budget that’s going to have $500,000 less in income, and $300,000 more in costs,” he said.
Tishuk said that he was also dismayed by testimony from a leader of the DC 37 union at yesterday’s City Council hearing about charter school expansion. A union leader testified critically of charter schools, yet office aides at Renaissance are represented by DC 37. “It just blew my mind,” Tishuk said.
I have not spoken yet to the two UFT officials Tishuk said he spoke with. I’ll report with those details.
Tishuk’s testimony to the City Council is below. You can also check out this Web site that students at Renaissance have made to protest the funding freeze.
Esteemed City Council Members,
My name is Nicholas Tishuk and I am the Director of Programs and Accountability at the Renaissance Charter School. Our small school has served the Jackson Heights community in Queens for fifteen years and currently serves 530 students grades K-12.
We are a school that works: we have happy kids, a dedicated and respected staff, and an involved parent body. We have received “A” ratings on our most recent K-8 and High School progress reports from the Department of Education and have K-8 and Regents scores that outperform similar schools and the City averages. We are, in the very best sense, a community school serving the needs of families in Jackson Heights, District 30 and Queens. As a conversion school, we are one of the oldest charter schools in New York City.
Our message is clear, charter schools are public schools and our 530 students and their families deserve to be treated with respect. The recently passed budget from Albany has been called a “freeze”, but we had already received a preliminary allocation from the Department of Education and this “freeze” has slashed our expected budget by over $500,000 for the 2009-2010 school year. This catastrophic budget cut has forced us to come together as a community. I invite all City Council Members to visit our student developed website, linked below, which documents the rallies and march that our students participated in to let elected officials know how these cuts affect our small school in Queens.
Councilmen Dilan’s New York City Resolution 1889 is a step backward. By making access to facilities and space more difficult, the City Council will be making a grave mistake. I am an absolute believer and advocate for public education in New York City and, whether foes like them or not, charter schools are public schools full of public school children. To cut the funding for these children, as Albany has done, or to restrict their access to buildings, as Resolution 1889 proposes, is an injustice against the civil rights of our students to a great education.
Thank you for your time.
The Renaissance Charter School