February 28, 2020
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Maine virtual charter school’s vote for union is in limbo after challenge before labor board

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
The National Labor Relations Board will determine later this month if the 9-7 vote among staff members at Maine Connections Academy to join the Maine Education Association is valid.

Staff at one of Maine’s two virtual charter schools voted to join a teachers’ union last year, but that election result is in limbo after a challenge to four of the 16 ballots cast.

The National Labor Relations Board will determine later this month which ballots are valid and if the result will stand following a hearing Friday in Boston.

In November, 16 of 22 eligible employees at Maine Connections Academy, which has its office in Scarborough, cast ballots in a vote to organize a bargaining unit under the Maine Education Association, the union said Friday. In the first union vote at a virtual charter school in Maine, employees voted 9-7 in favor of joining the statewide teachers’ union.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland is the only one of Maine’s 10 charter schools where teachers belong to the union. There is one other virtual charter school in Maine, Maine Virtual Academy, where students take classes online.

Maine Connections Academy has 420 students, according to teacher Pam Bessey.

Four of the ballots in the vote at Maine Connections Academy were contested — two by the academy, one by the National Labor Relations Board and one by the union, according to Giovanna Bechard, the union’s communications director. The challenges concern whether those voters’ positions at the school prevent them from being part of the bargaining unit, according to the union. One challenge involves a school counselor’s eligibility to vote, for example.

Maine Connections Academy is a virtual school for students in grades seven through 12 from more than 100 school districts. It opened in the 2014-15 school year.

Union President Grace Leavitt on Friday called the election “fair and valid.”

“To have to bring this issue to court is proof of why these educators need to have a union,” she said. “The Maine Education Association is always working to ensure educator voices are heard, no matter where they work. These teachers deserve to have their voices heard, and MEA is working to make sure that happens.”

The Maine Connections Academy contracts with Pearson, an international education company based in the United Kingdom, for many services such as human resources, according to the MEA.

Amy Linscott, president of the board for Maine Connections Academy, said that regardless of the National Labor Relations Board’s decision, “our school community will continue to offer all of the services and resources needed to create a well-rounded student experience.”

“We are grateful to everyone at Maine Connections Academy, regardless of how they voted, for their professionalism, their continuing support for our school and the exceptional experience they provide Maine Connections Academy’s students each day,” she said. “As this process continues, we will continue to foster a positive and respectful work environment for our employees, and our students, and maintain an open dialogue on how to best provide our students with a personalized approach to education.”

The push for a union began in September when Walter Wallace, the former principal at Brunswick Junior High School, was hired as principal at the academy, according to Bessey, who voted to join the union. Wallace had resigned abruptly in March after 15 years in the Brunswick district.

“We didn’t feel that we were given a voice in that selection process and asked for a conversation with the board,” Bessey said. “They sent one person.”

Teachers felt that was an inadequate response and that the board was not willing to give teachers a voice in the decision-making process, said the middle-school science teacher, who has worked at the virtual school for two years.

“The election was valid, and it’s disappointing that this has gone on for so long,” she said. “It’s caused a lot of stress and turmoil.”

 


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