New Orleans I have hugely mixed feeling about my old high school in New Orleans, but finally I found myself in a situation, sitting next to another alum, my daughter, Dine’, where I found that I had never been prouder of the teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School than on that night in that auditorium. In the long and bitter post-Katrina story, these were real heroes as 85% of the faculty had stepped forward and stood up by organizing the United Teachers of Franklin affiliated with the United Teachers of New Orleans, a local of the American Federation of Teachers.
Few will forget that one of the most ignominious stories of the aftermath of hurricane was the “never waste a crisis” mentality that found the school board terminating more than 5000 teachers and school employees and not reopening the schools in the fall of 2005, allowing the state and those trying to take over the system to seize most of the schools through the so-called Recovery School District and launch what continues to be the largest charter school pilot in the country. Part of the collateral damage of course was also the devastation of UTNO, the largest, and arguably the strongest, union in New Orleans and voiding of all collective bargaining agreements. Successful lawsuits filed at that time for the termination and rehiring proved breeches of the contract and though they are still pending should add up to billions, if there was justice in any settlement.
The Franklin story was one of the travesties of that time, since not only was it universally seen as the best public high school in the city and state, but it was also ranked annually as one of the top schools in the country. The charterization of the school was little more than unaccountable and unconscionable re-purposing of a huge public asset by an insider group wanting less interference from the elected school board, read African-American, leadership in the overall supervision of the school. Sitting at the public hearing called by the board on the question of whether to recognize the Franklin teachers’ union, no one commented on the fact that in this majority African-American city the board sitting in the front rows lacked any African-American representation, but that’s another story.
The teachers were eloquent in making their presentation. They wanted equity, rather than a wildly arbitrary pay scale benefiting “picks and chooses” of the principal, now being paid $172,000 according to the on-line Lens report, they wanted job security rather than an annual application process, and they wanted a voice in educational policy from their position in the classroom rather than lectures from lawyers and accountants. Who could disagree? As it turned out almost no one. Parents and students spoke in support of the teachers. A couple of alums demonstrated their anti-union animus in one case offending the teachers by calling them “amateurs” in a misplaced point about Latin roots, and in another case just sort of whining about the surprise to hear of a union and the wishing it would all go away.
I had my 2-minutes to express solidarity in behalf of our family. It was easy to punch holes in the notion of “collaboration” when collective bargaining better expressed – and guaranteed – such a voice. It was easy to remind everyone there that it was teachers and students that every study and all personal experience proved made education work and not “bricks and sticks.” It was even easy to remind the crowd that the values of the school itself spoke to allowing these special teachers to have a special voice. Finally, as an organizer of a union, I was able to remind them that the teachers already had built a union, now they had to get used to it.
Larry Carter, the head of UTNO, spoke shortly after I did and reminded them that UTNO was no longer the old UTNO and that the teachers at Franklin now had their own, almost autonomous union chapter. He didn’t say that it was all different now because if the Franklin teachers are able to win a contract, they will be the only teachers in New Orleans to have organized independently and done so and won a contract on their own. The anti’s were at best fighting ghosts. The teachers were fighting for the future.
That’s the true Franklin spirit, and as proud as I was of the teachers, for a change I was even proud to say that I was a Franklin graduate.