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Bringing in the union at Multi-Cultural Academy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Multi-Cultural Academy Charter School, located in the Logan section of North Philadelphia, was named a "distinguished school" this year and the school says that 100 percent of its graduating classes have been admitted to college for the past 11 years. Opening in 1998, the school touts strict discipline, small classes, and academic rigor. Founding CEO Vuong Thuy cited “collective decision-making” as one element of the school’s success.

But MACS teachers thought otherwise. Frustrated with Thuy’s refusal to respond to staff grievances, they voted last month by a two to one margin to join the Alliance of Charter School Employees (ACSE).

The main impetus for turning to the union was Thuy’s behavior, according to MACS teachers who spoke with the Notebook.

“One man silenced the whole staff… neglected and shut out parents and the community”, first year social studies teacher Aaron Pagoda explained. “That made it easy to organize… he kept fueling our fire the entire way.”

During the 2009-10 school year there were the first rumblings of a union drive when staff complained about the school’s lack of a security guard. When Thuy ignored them, the concern was raised with the school’s board. According to 2nd year social studies teacher Kimberly Kennedy, the board, while directing that a security guard be hired, said “staff had no business bringing the issue to the board…The only place we could go was Dr. Thuy.”

But it was last school year that teachers really came together. Health insurance was one of the issues. In violation of charter school law the school denied married teachers health insurance, requiring them to sign a waiver. The school was forced to change this policy when teachers made clear they would challenge its legality.

Another issue was the employee handbook Frank Mannino, a veteran teacher who played a leading role in the union drive explained:

“We heard about the existence of an employee handbook, but no one had a copy. When we asked for one, we were told it couldn’t be made available because it ‘could fall into the wrong hands.’ When teachers asked how could they be held accountable for following policies they didn’t know about, every teacher was told to come to the office, read the policy, and sign a statement that they had read it."

Deteriorating sanitation was also an issue. Trash went uncollected over the summer months, the school was infested with rodents, and at one point sewage backed up into the lunchroom. When Mannino called the health department, inspectors told him “if this was a restaurant we’d close it down.”

While money for sanitation was scarce, unknown to the staff at the time, the school was spending huge amounts on the legal expenses of Thuy, the target of multiple federal and state investigations.

The school spent $222,000 in one year on Thuy’s legal defense. He is also paid $206,000 in salary and collects an additional $69,000 from the Indo-Chinese Council (IAC) ,which he founded. The IAC also owns the school building which it leases to the school for $500,000 a year. The IAC paid the School District $1 million dollars for the aging building that once housed a parochial school.

Parents wage a parallel struggle

As the staff launched the union, parents began to organize as well, driven by many of the same concerns. At a board meeting with upwards of 70 parents and staff, the extensive misuse of school funds came to light. The board, largely recruited by Thuy, was forced to take action. Thuy was suspended and this month his relationship with the school was severed.

Parents, while not taking an overt position for the union, expressed support for concerns raised by the teachers. “I’m not sure without the parents involved we could have gone as far as we did,” Kennedy said.

Math and science teacher Rob McMillan added that another major factor in the union drive’s success was the growth of a community of dedicated teachers. “The school used to have a staff turnover rate of 50 percent. This year all but two teachers returned.” The high turnover rate “kept people weak, separated, and divided,” Kennedy added.

Thuy dismissed concerns from staff that the turnover hurt students. Mannino put it this way, "Education is a relationship business, students want to know their teachers, but he just saw it as another warm body…everybody is replaceable."

While 90 percent of staff signed union cards, the election was closer with a little more than two thirds voting for the union. An appeal by the new and widely respected headmaster James Higgins arguing that the union would undercut the school’s mission had some impact.

But the leaders of the union drive remain dedicated to their school and its mission.

Even with all the problems over the last year, the teachers remain proud of the school’s achievements. “It’s been a pleasure to teach here,” Pagoda says, “an ideal first year teaching job.” With a fresh start, these teachers believe the school will be even better.

With the board reorganizing under the watchful eyes of parents, the teachers hope they can negotiate a fair contract. “Nobody here is looking for a new Cadillac,” Kennedy said. “We just want what is fair and equitable.”

While a contract survey has yet to be completed, due process is at the head of the list “because we never had it before,” Mannino said.

Headmaster James Higgins did not respond to a request for comment.

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