After another third-grade teacher at the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul “got fed up with some of the disrespect” and resigned last October, Eric Johnson saw the number of students in his classroom swell from 22 to 31.
“The third-grade teachers, we agreed we’d absorb the kids,” Johnson said. “It’s better than the alternative – getting somebody who’s not the best teacher who we have to help teach our curriculum.
“But it’s not in the best interest of the kids at all.”
Johnson, vice president of the Education Minnesota Federation of Charter School Employees, was among roughly 30 staff members who showed up at a Jan. 21 meeting of CSE’s board of directors to register their concerns about the high rate of staff turnover at CSE, a 900-student school, located at Rice Street and Rose Avenue, that focuses on Hmong language and culture.
After a vote held last June, CSE teachers and support staff became the just the second group of charter school employees to unionize in Minnesota history. Negotiations on a first contract remain in the preliminary stages.
But by speaking up en masse about the turnover problem, Johnsons said, CSE staff put administrators on notice that they remain committed to winning a voice on the job.
Speaking up at the meeting “took guts,” Johnson said. “Especially with some of the intimidation that’s going on at the school, it’s hard to get people to participate in this stuff because of that track record of the past.”
‘A revolving door’
Most of the staff turnover at CSE this school year has been voluntary. Staff members and parents at the Jan. 21 meeting urged board members to investigate why the school has trouble retraining – and attracting – qualified staff.
Meanwhile, the turnover has continued. Two days after the board meeting, two middle-school teachers resigned, bringing the total number of resignations this school year to seven, Johnson said.
Fourth-grade teacher Bong Xiong, who was active in efforts to form a staff union at CSE, was terminated over the winter break.
All eight former staff members were “qualified people that a school like this really needs to have around to improve the achievement of the students,” Johnson said.
But high turnover rates “are not unusual for this school – and that’s the problem,” he added. “It’s a revolving door.”
Why? An outside investigation, initiated by state regulators in 2013, provided a glimpse of the work environment at CSE. In addition to confirming reports of financial and procedural mismanagement at the school, the investigation revealed an incident in which Superintendent Mo Chang disclosed the identity of a teacher who reported to authorities suspicions of child abuse at home.
Staff members described a culture of fear within the school, plagued by instability and poor communication, as a motivating factor in their successful organizing campaign last year.
Recruiting qualified applicants to CSE has been difficult as well, Johnson said.
“If a qualified candidate is going to go out on a limb with a charter school, they want to see what’s going on at the school,” he said. “I would imagine some of these questionable ethical activities come up on a Google search, and I would assume that has something to do with why we’re having a hard time recruiting qualified candidates.”
Whatever its cause, the high level of staff turnover at CSE isn’t good for the students’ learning environment, teachers, parents and community members told board members. They asked board members to look for answers to the school’s turnover problems by reviewing exit interviews conducted with outgoing staff.
“We know for a fact some of the people who have left have done exit interviews” with administrators, Johnson said. “We’re asking the board to do their own inquiry, without an agenda, of why so many people working here are less than happy.
“Finding the answer to this problem isn’t tough. It’s what are you going to do with the answers you find? That’s the tough part.”