After two years of organizing, nearly 100 teachers at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School have officially declared their intention to join the union. The school, located at Paseo and 63rd Street, serves nearly 1,000 students in grades five through twelfth. The group will join the American Federation of Local 691 Teachers, which also represents Kansas City public schools.
Teachers are organizing to reduce high staff turnover, low pay and lack of breaks. They also want a more manageable workload, better recruitment of substitute teachers and for EMKS to provide better support for its students.
Julian Vizitei teaches 12th grade government at the school. He says the unionization effort arose during the pandemic when school was online.
“Teachers are struggling, kids are struggling, families are struggling. I mean, every part of the school system is in trouble,” Vizitei said. “This is not a problem unique to Kauffman: there is a problem within education. But I really thought to myself, ‘What can i check?’ And the thing I can control is what we do in our school.
If successful, the school will be only the second charter school in the state to join the union and the largest. KIPP St. Louis High School teachers voted to join the AFT in November 2022.
In a statement, Katie Pasniewksi, the school’s chief operating officer, said the school is aware of efforts to unionise.
“AFT has the legal right to organize employees for collective bargaining purposes,” Pasniewksi said. “EMKS focuses on the best interests of students and families. We have provided a positive environment for learning and support for every student to reach their full potential.”
Jason Roberts, president of AFT Local 691, said the drive to unionize ultimately comes down to respect. Some EMKS teachers are making about $36,000, one of the lowest teacher salaries in the Kansas City area. Roberts said the pay would not come under a union contract.
“When you look around you and you work really hard—and Kauffman makes his teachers work really hard, it’s kind of the industry standard—you go, ‘I’m with you because I believe in your mission and your vision, but at what cost?’ Roberts said. ‘The cost is nearly $10,000 less than if I’d just jumped ship and gone somewhere else.’
EMKS was founded in 2011, but no staff teachers have been with the school since it opened. Vizitei said most teachers only stay for an average of three years. He says he is concerned about how the high turnover is affecting students and new teachers who need support.
“I can think of a list of people who are amazing teachers who just couldn’t keep up with the workload,” Vizitei said. “You go to other schools, and it’s like there’s a whole plethora of teachers who have been there for years[who]have all this institutional knowledge. It’s not useful for children to keep pedaling.”
Natasha Waschek has been teaching English in ninth grade and has been working with EMKS for four years. Every school year, she goes back to new teachers. Waschek says she believes teachers are leaving not because they had difficult students, but because “their emotional labor isn’t compensated or appreciated at the caliber I think they deserve.”
“What’s best for kids and what’s best for schools is when teachers stay and build relationships with kids and watch the kids grow and bring them to life,” Waschek says. “This is one way we can keep great human beings who are good for the kids, who are good for the building staff, and doing what they love on a regular basis, hopefully for a long time.”
The EMKS administration and management discovered the unionization campaign a few months before the teachers went public. The teachers say they have been the subject of a huge campaign against the unions since then.
In response, AFT Local 691 filed a malpractice charge against the school and is awaiting the results.
According to the complaint, the school hired an anti-union law firm to hold one-on-one meetings with teachers to dissuade them from unionizing, implemented unlawful performance improvement plans and disciplined employees for not meeting with them, questioned employees about union activity and their stance on unions and told employees that forming a union would block the changes they wanted and disrupt the workplace dynamic.
Vizitei says some administrators told him they were afraid to talk to the organizing teachers “because they don’t want to get in trouble.” Roberts says he is antithetical to the union’s goals.
“As the president of this venue I have never, ever chastised or tried to chide a trustee for having an affair and conversation with teachers,” Roberts said. “So saying ‘I’m afraid I can’t talk to you anymore’ doesn’t even line up with some of the core tenets of what a union believes in.”
Teachers sent a letter to school administrators urging them to stop spending money fighting unions and instead direct that money to teacher retention and family support services.
Pasniewksi said the school is operating within its legal rights.
“We have and will continue to provide staff with lawful and truthful information so staff can make an informed decision about whether a union is right for them, their family, their students and their class,” it said in a statement. .
Lyndsay Yates has been at EWKS for five years and teaches a 9th grade freshman seminar. She says the campaign against the unions has instead brought teachers together.
“I’ve actually never felt happier with my colleagues, I think because we’re doing this and because we’re actively conversing and connecting with each other in ways we’ve never done before,” Yates said. “(The pushback) made me realize that these are the people I’m here to fight for because I love these people.”
Unionization among charter school teachers has declined over the past decade. In 2009-10, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported that 12% of schools nationwide participated in unions. By 2018-19, the most recent year in the organization’s data, just over 10 percent of schools were union members.
Now the numbers are on the rise. There are currently approximately 7,500 AFT members working in charter schools nationwide. This school year, four new charter schools gained union recognition and more are awaiting election. KIPP of St. Louis was one of the schools that recently won election.
Titilayo Adelusola teaches sixth grade mathematics. She has been at the EMKS for two years: the teachers union campaign has been active the entire time she has been at the school. She hopes EMKS will be next in the growing list of schools that have won mayoral elections.
“This is just a truly wonderful opportunity that we have to effect change in a positive way,” Adelusola said. “Our children deserve to have the support of adults who are also supported, so this is a wonderful way for us to build community with each other and really make that positive change.”
Roberts is confident that EMKS teachers will soon join AFT Local 691. He says he believes that once they are successful, other charter schools in Metro will join as well.
“I think what we’re going to see is a realization among all of the other Metro charter schools, that ‘If they can do it, and they can go against Kauffman’s money and power, then we can do it,'” Roberts said.