By Evelyn Archibald
Summit Public Schools (SPS), a public charter system based primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, has yet to settle a complete first contract with Unite Summit, the SPS teachers’ union, after nearly two years of negotiations. Unite Summit(US), as a charter union, is also partnered with the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) and the National Education Association (NEA), and was officially certified by the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) in Dec. 2019. After over 15 months of negotiations, the two teams moved to mediated bargaining due to an impasse.
The first collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, between an employer and a union typically takes time to come through, the average is around 409 days as found by Bloomberg Law, and around 466 for educators specifically, but for SPS and Unite Summit, the number is closer to 710 days. Bargaining began on Mar. 20, 2020, and while tentative agreements have been made, there is little evidence to suggest a full contract will be reached soon.
“These things take the time that they take in order to get a good contract in place,” Diane Tavenner, CEO and Co-Founder of Summit Public Schools said. Ms. Tavenner founded SPS in 2003 with Summit Preparatory in Redwood City, Calif., and the public charter district has since grown across the Bay Area and parts of Washington state. “The unions [US, CTA, NEA] were pretty open in saying that the first contract often takes at least a year to bargain, because you’re kind of starting from scratch,” she went on. “I’m in contact with other charter organizations that are similarly situated and, you know, some of them are in their fourth year of bargaining their first contract.”
While first agreements take time even in normal circumstances, the added stress and constraints of a pandemic take their toll as well. Negotiations have taken place entirely online so far, and Justin Kim, eighth grade history teacher at Summit K-2 Middle School and Treasurer of Unite Summit likens it to virtual classes: “You can just do less online because everything is slower.”
While that’s part of the delay, the two parties are also still reconciling on terms. “We just have really different understandings of what teachers need,” Mr. Kim said. “It just feels like on their side that what they want to be able to still have control over, versus what the teachers are asking for, is still really far apart.”
Janine Peñafort, a former Summit Prep student class of 2012, now teaches Spanish at Summit Prep. She was recently made president of Unite Summit. “I think it’s because Summit Public Schools don’t believe that the things that we are advocating for as a union are actually what teachers want,” Ms. Peñafort said. Due to this concern, Unite Summit sent out a petition to teachers during a board meeting on Oct. 21. According to Ms. Peñafort, they found almost 90% of all teachers in support of the union’s goals. She commented, “When there’s no formal system … to elevate teacher voice, for us to share the things that we want, it’s easy to just make assumptions, or believe that, ‘Oh, teachers haven’t voiced this, so it’s not what they want. Because they’re not saying it.’”
In response to Ms. Peñafort’s comments, Ms. Tavenner stated, “Here’s what I can say is fact. We 100% respect all of our teachers and their views, and we respect the process and the right of them to have bargaining unit members who bargain on their behalf and represent their views in the contract negotiation … We received that petition, and we continue to bargain in really good faith.”
“These are really legally intense documents,” Ms. Tavenner said, addressing the contract settlement time frame. “That takes a lot of time and care to really get that right.”
Unite Summit officially declared impasse on Jul. 14, 2021 and in the union’s online newsletter, cited the decision was “common and appropriate [at this point]”. US shared in the post, published Jul. 15, “It is clear that progress has stalled and that more bargaining sessions will not result in the settling of the collective bargaining agreement.”
Ms. Tavenner and the SPS bargaining team had a different perspective. “The union group decided that they didn’t feel like they wanted to participate in negotiations anymore,” Ms. Tavenner said. “We felt like we were collectively making good progress — as evidence of that, on the day that they declared impasse we literally made an agreement on an article and then, in the next five minutes they declared impasse.”
Consensus vs Negotiation
When it comes to decision-making amongst employees at Summit, Ms. Tavenner prefers to come to agreements through a process called consensus building. “You bring all the people together, who are involved, and you go through a really thoughtful process to look at, you know, ‘what do we value? What are our objectives, what are our resources? What are we trying to achieve?’ and collectively sort of craft the agreement and then come to a consensus on it where everyone agrees,” she said.
“For many years, we’re actually been doing that with all of the employees of Summit. We would have a process every couple years, every two or three years, and we would all come to agreement,” she added. “I think it’s a really values-based approach, I think it builds trust, I think it builds knowledge, and understanding, and commitment and buy-in.”
When moving to bargaining and mediation, SPS and Unite Summit instead bargain through negotiation, which Ms. Tavenner sees, in contrast, as people on “different sides of the table.”
“It’s by design a little bit adversarial,” she said. “It assumes that people are kind of against each other, and that they are kind of fighting for their position. … It doesn’t resonate with me as much personally, because I like collaboration and working together, but … it’s the one that was chosen by this group of people and the organization.”
Though not on the bargaining unit herself, Ms. Peñafort offers a teacher’s and union leader’s perspective on negotiation. “In my personal experience with consensus processes, they’re really great in theory,” she said. “I think that, why we have to be in this position of bargaining and — even though it would be great to have a consensus process — being able to engage in that work requires less of the hierarchical structure.”
“Folks who are in those higher positions are not on the ground in classrooms. So I think it’s really important that we are elevating the voices of our teachers who are with students every single day. It holds a different weight than people who are not in the classroom,” Ms. Peñafort said. “In addition to consensus being a challenging process because of the differing perspectives on issues, Summit administration is simply unwilling to give up power.”
Issue by Issue
As stated in the Unite Summit newsletter, teacher retention and job security are two major issues being discussed in first contract negotiation. Ms. Peñafort, seeing the community of teachers as a student at Summit Prep, became excited about becoming part of a strong teaching team in the future. “My teachers at Summit were the reason why I aspired to become a teacher,” she said. “It was a huge reality check, to go between different Summit sites, and like every year … kind of starting from scratch in terms of building our culture, which of course trickles down into student culture.”
Across all campuses, Summit has seen an increase in teacher turnover rate in the last several years. According to Ms. Peñafort, only around 30% of current teachers have been with SPS for three or more years, making the turnover rate almost 50% higher than the local public high school district, Jefferson Union.
“A lot of teachers leave every year from different Summit schools and even this year, we lost several teachers during the school year. It’s much higher than it should be,” Mr. Kim said. “We [Unite Summit] want to create a working environment that is more sustainable and more balanced for teachers. Because we feel like if teachers have more balance and more support, then they will be better for their students.”
Ms. Peñafort emphasized that teacher retention being low makes it harder on current teachers to do their jobs. “With this contract, we are pushing and advocating for working conditions that make it less likely for people to burn out after three years and leave either the profession or leave to go to another school,” she said.
Alongside articles regarding teacher welfare, much of the union’s first CBA also includes things like student services and class size caps. Ms. Peñafort says her mentor group, a major Summit Schools feature that matches a group of students with a ‘mentor’ teacher for all four years, has 35 students. “It is really hard to be an effective teacher with that many students in a classroom, especially one that is promised to be personalized within an 80-minute class block,” she said. “I end up being able to check in with a handful of students, but there are a lot of students who are not getting their needs met.”
As of Jan. 26, 2022, a tentative agreement was made regarding class size caps, stating that no teacher will have an average class size exceeding 29 students, and no mentor group will exceed 28 students.
Mr. Kim started teaching at Summit K-2 in 2020, after moving from Los Angeles with his partner. One of the reasons he decided on SPS, he said, was the fact that Unite Summit had just been approved, and once he began teaching, he quickly joined the union. “Primarily, the reason that I joined [Unite Summit] was, I saw a big need for increased student support services, for mental health, for our English language learner population, for students with disabilities … I felt that those students were not receiving the services that they deserve and they need in order to be successful in school.”
Another concern Unite Summit identifies is school site autonomy. Ms. Peñafort defines this as school sites being able to make decisions that are personalized to their communities. “If that is the model that we [SPS] are functioning on, then it only makes sense to expect that of our schools.”
“Different school sites all have different needs,” Mr. Kim said. “They have different student makeup, they come from different communities. It would just make sense to be able to diversify how we approach certain programs.”
CTA and Charters
Though Unite Summit is working closely with CTA throughout the unionization and first contract process, they have a history with charter schools — specifically Summit. As a former Chair and Board member of the California Charter Schools Association, an organization on the record as opposing CTA, and a former public school teacher herself, Ms. Tavenner has had experience with the association. “One of the views that I have is that, you know, Summit teachers and Unite Summit are a very different group from the California Teachers’ Association. Both of them are in negotiations, but I think they’re very different,” she said.
“One of the CTA representatives who works with Unite Summit and is in the bargaining session is actually, by training, an organizer,” Ms. Tavenner stated. “I think a lot of what we see is her taking an organizing approach.” She is mentioning Ona Keller, a CTA employee who has been working with Unite Summit since the unionization process.
According to Ms. Tavenner, CTA has attempted multiple times to block the renewal or approval of Summit schools and other charters in the past. “At almost every single charter hearing, the CTA will be there and say that these schools shouldn’t exist,” she stated.
It’s true that CTA has made strides to limit public charters in California. In 2019, they backed several bills, including Assembly Bill 1507, which requires all charters to be approved by the district it is located in.
As mediation continues, Ms. Tavenner wants the Summit community to know that, though SPS as an administration isn’t sharing much about this process, “it’s just the reality of how these systems work”. Due to both confidentiality agreements and legal bounds as an employer, Ms. Tavenner says her communication is limited.
“From the moment we started the first school, Summit Prep, through now, that’s what I think is special about Summit schools, that these are places where people care about each other and they work together and they believe in each other,” Ms. Tavenner said. “And it’s hard work, and it’s nuanced work, and it takes time, but the way we get there is not fighting with each other, but actually working together and you know, believing in each other.”
The Unite Summit bargaining unit, while also working as teachers and sometimes second jobs, have put well over 100 hours into negotiation. “I am so grateful for them for the work they are putting in,” Ms. Peñafort said. “At this point, so many teachers are so tired, and we are not even at the table having those big conversations in mediation with people who have more power and influence over what is going on in our work.”
Ms. Peñafort wants students to know that a contract would not only help teachers, but everyone at Summit. “This contract shows that the work that we do is valuable, is meaningful, and in turn, it directly affects our ability to best serve all of the students in our communities.”
Featured Image(at top of post): Unite Summit solidarity and support flyers hang in Summit Shasta classrooms. PHOTO CREDIT: Evelyn Archibald