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Teachers at Tucson's BASIS charter school overwhelmingly vote to form union

Teachers at Tucson's BASIS charter school overwhelmingly vote to form union

Widely recognized charter first in Arizona to have staff organize with AFT/AFL-CIO

  • Andrew Sterling teaches Advanced Placement U.S. government and Advanced Placement U.S. history classes at a BASIS school in Tucson in 2012.
    Jacob Chinn/BASIS SchoolsAndrew Sterling teaches Advanced Placement U.S. government and Advanced Placement U.S. history classes at a BASIS school in Tucson in 2012.

By a 2-1 margin, teachers at Tucson's acclaimed BASIS Tucson North school voted to unionize Wednesday evening, making the Northeast Side charter the first in Arizona to have staff organize.

During the vote, teachers and teaching fellows cast their ballots 34-17 in favor of founding the local union chapter, the Arizona Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. That margin surpassed a required 50 percent threshold that allows them to found the union and affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers. Only about 12 percent of teachers in U.S. charter schools belong to unions, and the AFT represents teachers in over 240 charter schools across 15 states and Washington D.C., organizers said.

The outcome was exhilarating, said Trudi Connolly, a member of the organizing committee, adding the advocates of the union were "still trying to catch our breath" just minutes after the vote.

"The union was needed because we were losing teachers and the essence of the school’s culture at an unbelievable rate," said Connolly. "We want to protect the aspirations we've always had for our school. Under current circumstances, we can’t retain enough teachers to educate our students, let alone provide them with the depth of intellectual experience and support they deserve."  

She added that the for-profit company that manages BASIS "needs to make more money available for the hiring and retaining of teachers, and now we have the ability to move them to do so."

"Teachers, indeed like all kinds of workers all over the country, are coming together to make sure they have a real voice in what the future of our workplaces look like. In our case, we want our workplace to be one where teachers thrive and students get the education they deserve," Connolly said.

BASIS representatives told the Tucson Sentinel that the company is ready to negotiate with the teachers "in good faith."

The union local at the school will cover about 60 employees, according to documents filed with the National Labor Relations Board last month. That includes "full-time and regular part-time subject expert teachers, teaching fellows, and college guidance coordinators." Not covered are "all other professional and non-professional employees, including IT employees, special education employees, administrators, operations employees, deans, directors, registers, front office employees, curriculum employees," and other managers and supervisors.

Representatives for the administrators of BASIS did not immediately respond to Tucson Sentinel's request for comment Wednesday, but sent a statement Thursday afternoon.

"We respect the teachers at BASIS Tucson North and their right to vote on this matter," said Phil Handler, a spokesman for BASIS Educational Ventures. "We remain focused on the best interests of students at BASIS Tucson North, and making sure this school remains one of the best in Arizona and the nation. We will keep working hard to ensure that's the case, while following the law and negotiating in good faith with the union."

Attorneys for the school had pushed back against the union organizing effort, contesting a proposal by organizers that would have allowed for mail-ballots. Instead, the school pushed for an in-person "manual election" be held on Wednesday.

The election was held Wednesday from 7-8:30 a.m., with voting again open from 3:30-5 p.m., and was overseen by the NLRB.

Under federal law, the school's management must sit at the negotiating table with the new union.

There are about 560 charter schools in Arizona, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, with around 208,000 students. The BASIS vote follows a national trend as educators at charter schools seek the backing of unions to protect wages and defend curriculum.

Founded here in 1998, BASIS Charter Schools expanded from one school in Tucson to 23 schools in Arizona. BASIS has expanded beyond the state, including schools in Louisiana, Texas and Washington D.C., There are four campuses in Tucson, including BASIS Oro Valley, BASIS Oro Valley Primary, BASIS Tucson Primary, and BASIS Tucson North.

BASIS charters have regularly been recognized as among of the nation's top-ranked schools, getting nods from U.S. News & World Report and earning the top spot on the Washington Post's list of America's Most Challenging High Schools.

"It’s high time for Arizona charter schools to stop manipulating the right to work laws and taking advantage of our teachers, parents, and students. BASIS should be ashamed of their treatment of their teachers and eagerly welcome negotiating rights for their staff," said Ralph Quintana, the president of the Arizona American Federation of Teachers, part of the larger 1.7-million strong national American Federation of Teachers union. "Si se puede," he added, Spanish for "Yes, we can."

The AFT is part of the larger AFL-CIO umbrella of labor unions.

"As a BASIS alumni and second-generation BASIS teacher, I am so proud to be a part of this community," said Justine Sleator, an 8th-grade algebra instructor. "Our union will allow us to re-prioritize the needs of our students. We will be able to protect new teachers from burnout and retain high-quality educators, as BASIS has been known for," she said.

"I am indescribably proud of the teachers and teaching fellows who decided to stand up for us and our students," said Duncan Hasman, an 8th and 10th-grade Spanish teacher. "Let this step help open the door for workers all across Arizona.”

Following the vote, the newly minted union local will move to negotiate its first contract with school administrators. Organizers said the union will "ensure additional accountability, administrative transparency, and more resources and time to effectively identify and address student needs."

The union vote comes as Arizona continues to expand Empowerment Scholarship Account Funding, which allows parents to receive taxpayer funding for education materials, tutoring and private school tuition.

By December 2022, there were 44,787 students in the ESA program, including thousands of kids with special needs and well as kids with military parents. On average, students received around $10,000 from the program, though the state sent more than $30,000 for around 4,800 children, according to the Arizona Department of Education's most recent quarterly report.

In March, the Arizona Education Association pressed Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs and state legislators to increase school funding, raising nearly $2.2 billion to raise Arizona from among the bottom of states on education spending.

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