Most new chief executives are hired to grow an organization. But that was not Dan Katzir’s mandate when took the helm of downtown Los Angeles charter school operator Alliance College Ready Public Schools earlier this year.

Instead, Katzir, with his board’s backing, called for a pause in Alliance’s growth after a decade in which the nonprofit grew from just one high school campus with a few hundred students to the largest charter school operator in Los Angeles with 27 campuses and nearly 12,000 students.

The idea behind the pause: give Alliance’s operations and programs a chance to catch up, to “consolidate the gains,” as Katzir put it.

But the pause has also come as Alliance’s long-running battle with the United Teachers Los Angeles union over charter school expansion has taken an especially nasty turn. After being approached by some Alliance teachers nearly a year ago, UTLA sensed an opportunity to bring into its fold the largest charter school outfit, with more than 600 teachers, in Los Angeles Unified School District territory.

The union organizing campaign is being fought out in the courts and before a state board as each side has alleged the other has been harassing Alliance teachers.

Court battle

The clash between Alliance and UTLA is also part of a larger war that the union is waging against charter schools. The conflict has intensified in recent weeks as a group of charter school and foundation leaders led by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad has launched a $490 million effort to enroll half of LAUSD’s 650,000 students in charter schools.

Over the next few weeks, though, the focus will be on Alliance as Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant considers whether to issue a preliminary injunction barring the charter school operator from interfering with union organizers or asking teachers about their stance on the union drive. Chalfant has already issued a temporary restraining order while he considers the merits of an injunction. The judicial hearing, scheduled for this week, has been pushed back to December.

The request for an injunction came from the California Public Employment Relations Board, which oversees collective-bargaining laws involving public-sector workers. Earlier this month, Alliance and UTLA representatives made their cases to the board; for this story, each side made teachers available to back their claims.

Alliance has claimed UTLA organizers have been badgering teachers on and off campus, even after those teachers said they have no interest in joining the union.

“They’ve come to my parents’ home and kept calling me, even after I’ve told them I’m happy at my job,” said Ami Sheth, a ninth-grade English teacher at Alliance’s Peter Neuwirth Leadership Academy in South Los Angeles.

UTLA, meanwhile, has claimed Alliance and individual school officials have tried to stop organizers from reaching out to teachers.

“The minute you express a pro-union sentiment there’s an influx of anti-union emails,” said Elana Goldbaum, a 10th-grade world and European history teacher at Alliance’s Gertz-Reffler High School in the Pico-Union neighborhood. “I was told once not to hand out union literature.”

High stakes

Each side sees larger stakes in this battle. UTLA has had limited success in unionizing charter school teachers and fears that a massive charter school expansion led by Broad’s group would decimate the union’s ranks and likely leave remaining LAUSD schools with the poorest and often hardest to teach students.

Bringing the largest charter operator into the union – besides bringing in hundreds of thousands of additional dollars in dues – could reverse those trends.

“We’ve been calling for public school accountability: If you receive public funds, you have to serve the entire public,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl, referring to a state law that allows public dollars to follow students into charter schools. “There must be equity and access for all students and there must be transparent ways for parents to be involved.”

Katzir is concerned that if its teachers join UTLA, the 27 Alliance schools would be subject to union tenure rules and other restrictions, thus losing much of their freedom to try new curricula and use performance-based pay.

That freedom, he said, is a key reason why more than 90 percent of Alliance’s 12,000 students complete their high school studies and graduate, with more than 70 percent going on to college. The graduation rate for LAUSD rose from a low of 55 percent a decade ago to 70 percent last year, but now appears to be dropping again.

Reform roots

Katzir said improving the graduation rate was one of the driving forces behind Alliance’s creation nearly 15 years ago. Many of the nonprofit’s original board members came out of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now school reform movement of the early 1990s. At participating LEARN schools, parents, teachers and administrators had more of a say in curriculum, hiring and spending decisions that previously had been made at LAUSD headquarters. That concept is taken even further at charter schools, which are mostly independent from the district, though its board must approve the opening of each campus.

Charter schools, though officially classified as public schools, are administered in ways similar to private schools, but with a couple of key differences: Instead of private tuition, the schools receive public funds allocated on a per-student basis and any student can apply; if there are not enough slots, then students are admitted by lottery. Also, charter schools are responsible for leasing or building their facilities, which Katzir said has been a major impediment blocking the formation of new schools given the current tight real estate market.

Because charter schools have to finance their facilities and hire teachers right out of the gate, they rely on outside funding sources – mainly, grants from the federal government and private foundations – at least for the first few years.

Since Alliance grows its schools one grade at a time until reaching full enrollment, each school relies on outside money for the first three or four years until they are fully funded with per-pupil dollars from the state. Roughly $6 million of that has come from Broad’s foundation.

Now that Alliance has paused its growth, some of that money is being steered to new initiatives such as more tracking and mentoring of graduates as they go through college.

Some charter school operations do have unionized teachers: UTLA represents teachers at 12 independent schools, while another major charter school operator, Green Dot Public Schools, formed its own teachers union. But Alliance remained nonunion, even as it added three to four schools each year.

Katzir said the schools’ track record with graduation rates and test scores are proof that its nonunion system works. Also, the growth of Alliance and other charter providers reflects the demand among parents for such schools.

“It’s not clear to me that bringing in a third-party agency which has UTLA’s track record is going to improve student achievement at Alliance schools,” he said.

Union campaign

UTLA did not target Alliance for unionization as it was growing, choosing instead to focus on getting board members elected to the LAUSD who opposed charter schools.

But almost a year ago, several teachers approached the union. They said they were upset with what they perceived as Alliance’s refusal to act on their concerns over curriculum choices, the use of Pearson Education software on Apple iPads, teacher turnover and an increasing reliance on merit pay.

By that time, Alliance was too big for UTLA to ignore. So within a couple of months, the union launched its organizing campaign.

Adding a sense of urgency in their eyes was Alliance’s hiring of Katzir, who had just spent 11 years working for Broad’s education foundation – the same foundation that eight years ago put $6 million into Alliance.

“Alliance is one of the charter school operators specifically mentioned in Eli Broad’s charter expansion campaign,” UTLA’s Caputo-Pearl said.

But while the union sees a conspiracy, Katzir said he was not involved in work locally on charters while at the foundation.

In addition, the Alliance teachers made available for this story dispute UTLA’s claims of widespread dissatisfaction among teachers.

“They’ve had almost a year to persuade a majority of teachers to sign on with the union and it hasn’t happened – not even close,” said Craig Winchell, an 11th-grade U.S. history teacher. “It’s time they left us alone.”

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